Who gets chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?
COPD symptoms are usually difficult to spot at first. Most people are not diagnosed until they are 50 years of age or older.
The number of people with COPD increases with their age and varies significantly by area of the country. It is more common in areas where there is a lot of social deprivation, but it is not known whether this is because of exposure to cigarette smoke or to other factors such as air pollutants, poor nutrition and over-crowding.
COPD is more common in men, but in recent years it has increased in women. This is because more women are smoking and also women tend to live longer than men.
What are the symptoms of a flare-up of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?
Exacerbations of COPD can cause:
- Increased breathlessness and difficulty with breathing - being less able to do any physical exercise or do your usual daily activities.
- Increased cough.
- Increased amount of phlegm (sputum) and a change in colour of the sputum. This may become green or dirty brownish.
- Increased wheeze heard from your chest.
- Feeling very tired and generally unwell.
Severe exacerbations of COPD may cause a bluish colour (cyanosis) in your lips and tongue and make you feel drowsy and confused. These are signs that you're not getting enough oxygen and usually mean that you need urgent treatment in hospital.
When you see a healthcare professional they might notice that:
- You have difficulty talking in full sentences.
- Your breathing rate per minute is higher than it should be (more than 20 for a normal adult).
- You are breathing through pursed lips.
- You are using additional chest wall muscles to breathe.
- You may be a little confused.
- You may have a bluish discolouration around your lips.
- You may have developed some ankle swelling.
- You may be less able to do your normal daily routine of jobs.
What else might it be?
If you have COPD, it's important not to assume that any worsening of symptoms is always because of COPD. You should always see your doctor or nurse if you're not sure. Other causes of similar symptoms in patients with COPD include:
Further reading and references
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; NICE Clinical Guideline (June 2010)
Global Strategy for the Diagnosis, Management and Prevention of COPD; Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD), 2017
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; NICE CKS, September 2015 (UK access only)
BTS Guidelines for Home Oxygen Use in Adults; British Thoracic Society and BTS Home Oxygen Guideline Group (2015)
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