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In this Health Hub article, we explore the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of COPD.


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COPD in Ireland

In this Health Hub article, we explore the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of COPD. 

What Is COPD Of The Lungs?

  • COPD is a group of irreversible respiratory diseases, emphysema & bronchitis.
  • It cannot be cured, and the damage caused to the lungs is permanent, but disease progression may be slowed down using a variety of treatments outlined below

What Are The Causes Of COPD?

  • The main cause of COPD is smoking. The likelihood of developing COPD increases the more cigarettes you smoke daily, and the longer you smoke
  • Some cases of COPD are caused by long-term exposure to harmful fumes, or occur as a result of a rare genetic problem that means the lungs are more vulnerable to damage
  • Rarely, a person may be genetically predisposed to developing COPD due to alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAt) deficiency
  • COPD is caused by inflammation of the lungs, they become narrowed and damaged and oxygen exchange in the lungs is decreased

What Are The Common Symptoms Of COPD?

  • Breathlessness and wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Continuous production of phlegm
  • Frequent chest infections

Symptoms of COPD will gradually worsen over time and will sometimes worsen suddenly, this is called a flare up or exacerbation. Flares of COPD are more common in the colder winter months- patients may be hospitalised if exacerbations are severe.

Other symptoms include:

  • Weight loss
  • Tiredness
  • Chest pain and blood in the sputum

Is COPD Predicable? 

Smoking is the number one cause of COPD. It is a preventable condition, simply by not smoking, or stopping smoking as soon as possible. This will prevent further damage to the lungs.

COPD generally presents itself as either emphysema or bronchitis. Sometimes as a combination of the two.


  • Emphysema

Patients with emphysema experience gradual destruction of the alveoli of the lungs- these are the ‘air sacs’ in the lungs. Destruction and weakening of the alveoli results in reduced elasticity of the lungs, and leads sufferers to be constantly short of breath and a constant struggle to breathe.

  • Chronic Bronchitis

Bronchitis is chronic inflammation of the lungs. It commonly affects the windpipe and airways of the lungs, leading to irritation and infection. In addition to this inflammation, the body produces mucus. The body’s natural reaction is to this effect is to clear the airways. Symptoms of bronchitis are persistent coughing and shortness of breath due to airway obstruction.

Diagnosis Of COPD

  • Lung Function Tests: measure the volume of air inhaled and exhaled. Also determine if your lungs are delivering enough oxygen to your blood
  • Spirometry: measures how much air your lungs can hold and the rate which you exhale air out of the lungs. Can detect COPD even before you have symptoms of the disease.
  • Chest X-ray: A chest X-ray can show emphysema, one of the main causes of COPD
  • CT Scan: A CT scan of your lungs can help detect emphysema and help determine if you might benefit from surgery for COPD
  • Arterial Blood Gas Analysis: determines how well your lungs are bringing oxygen into your blood and removing carbon dioxide
  • Laboratory Tests: may be used to determine if you have the genetic disorder alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAt) deficiency, which may be the cause of some cases of COPD. This test may be done if you have a family history of COPD and develop COPD at a young age, such as under age 45.

Treatment Of COPD


What Is The Difference Between COPD And Pulmonary Fibrosis?

  • Both are chronic respiratory diseasesSymptoms of both COPD and pulmonary fibrosis are similar
  • Pulmonary fibrosis is caused by scarring of the lung tissue, dense fibrous connective tissue replaces lung tissue and makes less room for oxygen exchange in the lungs
  • It is more difficult to determine the cause of pulmonary fibrosis compared to COPD
  • There is no cure for either condition

Advice From the Pharmacist

  • If you notice your mucus changing in colour/volume, and your shortness of breath worsens you should see your GP as soon as possible
  • If you get new chest pain or cough up blood you should also see your doctor
  • If your medication isn’t controlling your symptoms like it used to, you may need to additional medication added to your treatment plan
  • If you are going on an aeroplane and are taking oxygen on board, check your airline’s policies when it comes to taking your tank onboard
  • For lifestyle hints and tips on coping with COPD, please see the HSE website

More Information and Support in Ireland


Grace Mullholland
Grace is a pharmacist at Healthwave and graduated from Sunderland University.