About smoking and COPD

COPD is a common condition that mainly affects middle-aged or older adults who smoke. Many people do not realise they have it.

COPD is a group of lung conditions that make it difficult to empty air out of the lungs. Two of these conditions are chronic (long-term) bronchitis and emphysema. The breathing problems tend to get gradually worse over time and can limit your normal activities.

Around 115,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with COPD each year, the equivalent to a new diagnosis every 5 minutes. It is estimated that about 1.2m people in the UK have COPD, but there are many more who haven’t been diagnosed.

If you smoke, the single most effective treatment for COPD is to stop. Although the damage to the lungs is permanent, treatment can help slow down the progression of the condition.

Click the circle highlights to see conditions caused by smoking.

How smoking causes COPD

COPD usually develops because of long-term damage to the lungs from breathing in a harmful substance, usually cigarette smoke. Cigarettes cause serious damage to the lungs, and the rest of the body, because tobacco smoke contains more than 5,000 chemicals including many that are cancer-causing.

With COPD, less air is able to move in and out as you breathe because the airways have become narrowed. This is because:

  • The lung tissue is damaged so there is less pull on the airways.
  • Mucus blocks part of the airway.
  • The airway lining becomes inflamed and swollen.

Treatments are available to help people breathe more easily and help you keep active, so it’s important to get an early diagnosis.

What does it feel like?

There are a number of common symptoms of COPD. People may experience these all the time, or it could appear worse when breathing in smoke or fumes, or when someone has an infection.

The main symptoms include:

  • Getting short of breath easily when doing everyday things such as going for a walk or doing housework.
  • Having a cough that lasts a long time.
  • Wheezing in cold weather.
  • Producing more phlegm than usual.

Severe COPD can leave people struggling to breathe and in some cases, dependent on oxygen and with reduced mobility.

There’s more advice on the British Lung Foundation website about symptoms, treatments, support available and how to manage COPD.

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