Healthy lungs have never been more important
It’s never been more important to focus on the health of your lungs and we’re encouraging people to quit smoking to reduce their risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
It’s never been more important to focus on the health of your lungs and we’re encouraging people to quit smoking to reduce their risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is a progressive condition, which means there is currently no cure and everyday tasks can be challenging. It is the UK’s fifth biggest killer and is mainly caused by smoking. Feeling short of breath, a chronic cough and wheezing are all early warning signs that usually start in middle age onwards.
What is COPD?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
Emphysema affects the air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs and chronic bronchitis affects your airways (bronchi). Most COPD patients suffer from both emphysema and chronic bronchitis to varying degrees.
In the UK, there are currently 1.2 million people living with diagnosed COPD, making it the second most common lung disease after asthma. COPD narrows your airways permanently, making it harder to breathe and impacting on many aspects of your daily life. It mainly affects middle-aged and older adults who smoke.
What causes COPD?
Breathing in harmful substances such as cigarette smoke, dust, fumes and chemicals can cause long-term damage to your lungs, which can develop into COPD.
Smoking is the main cause of COPD and is thought to be responsible for around 9 in 10 cases.
It also has a tendency to run in families so if your parents or close relatives have chest problems, or you had chest problems as a child, then you are at higher risk of developing the disease.
What are the symptoms of COPD?
COPD develops slowly over time and you may not notice you have any symptoms until your late 40s or 50s. The disease is incurable, but treatment can help slow its progression.
The most common symptoms of COPD include:
- increasing breathlessness
- a persistent chesty cough which doesn’t go away
- frequent chest infections
- persistent wheezing
Less common symptoms include:
- weight loss
- swollen ankles from a build-up of fluid
- chest pain or coughing up blood
Find out more about COPD symptoms on the NHS website.
How does smoking affect COPD?
The likelihood of developing COPD increases the more you smoke and the longer you’ve smoked for. But even if you have COPD, quitting smoking can bring major improvements to the way you feel and to your health. You’ll feel better too – you’ll feel less short of breath and cough less.
How do I manage living with COPD?
Although COPD is incurable, it can be controlled with treatment.
The most important thing you can do if you have COPD is to stop smoking. Damage done to your lungs and airways through smoking can’t be reversed but giving up will help prevent further damage. Quitting might be the only treatment needed in the early stages of the disease.
Inhalers and tablets can help make breathing easier. Inhalers deliver medicine directly into your lungs as you breathe in, helping to relax and widen your airways. If your symptoms aren’t controlled with inhalers, you may need to take tablets that can help to reduce inflammation in your airways or make the phlegm in your throat easier to cough up. You may also be prescribed a programme of rehabilitation exercise, which is designed around you to help you manage the condition.
Need help to quit smoking?
The addictive substance in cigarettes is nicotine which causes a powerful addiction in the brain. However, nicotine on its own is relatively harmless. The illnesses and diseases caused by smoking come from the thousands of other toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke.
One way of the best ways to stop smoking is by using nicotine that doesn’t come from tobacco. It’s not possible to overdose on nicotine, but it’s possible that you may not use enough when trying to quit which could make you still want to smoke tobacco. That’s why it’s important to use the right level of nicotine for you.
Nicotine replacement therapy, such as patches, sprays and gum, are safe sources of nicotine and are very effective in helping a smoker to stop as long as the level of nicotine is right. Vaping is significantly less harmful than smoking tobacco (e-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco) and have helped many smokers stop smoking tobacco entirely. There are also prescribed medications that can break the addiction to nicotine in the brain.
So, there is more help than ever before to stop smoking. The best chance of stopping is with a combination of personalised support and a stop smoking aid – like nicotine replacement, e-cigarettes, or medication.
For help to stop smoking, speak to your Local Stop Smoking Service, GP or pharmacist, or call the NHS Stop Smoking helpline free on 0300 123 1044. Greater Manchester residents can also get six months’ free access to the Smoke Free app – usually worth £60 – by signing up online at www.smokefreeapp.com/GM (T&Cs apply).
Content in this article has been reviewed by Dr Matthew Evison, Respiratory Consultant