About smoking and COPD

COPD is an umbrella term for a range of conditions including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. It usually affects people over the age of 35 who are or have been regular smokers. It is the fifth most common cause of death in England and Wales with about 28,000 people dying from it every year. It is estimated that about 1.2m people in the UK have COPD but there are many more who haven’t been diagnosed.

Stopping smoking is essential to prevent the development of COPD and for those diagnosed, slow down its progression.

Click the circle highlights to see conditions caused by smoking.

How smoking causes COPD

Every cigarette smoked causes more damage to the lungs and increases a person’s risk of COPD. Tobacco smoke contains more than 5,000 chemicals, including more than 70 cancer-causing chemicals and hundreds of other poisons.

Most COPD patients have varying degrees of both emphysema and chronic bronchitis, although some people with COPD may have just one of these conditions:

Chronic bronchitis is caused by inflamation of your bronchi – these are the main airways that lead from your windpipe (trachea) to your lungs. This inflammation can lead to excess mucus that may block your airways.

Emphysema is the term used to describe damage to the walls of your alveoli. These are tiny air sacs in your lungs where oxygen passes into your blood. The damage to your lungs means that less oxygen passes into your blood to be transported around your body to your tissues, including your brain. This contributes to symptoms such as having difficulty breathing and tiredness.

With COPD, less air flows through the airways—the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs—because of one or more of the following:

  • The airways and tiny air sacs in the lungs lose their ability to stretch and shrink back.
  • The walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed.
  • The walls of the airways become thick and inflamed (irritated and swollen).
  • The airways make more mucus than usual, which can clog them and block air flow.

What does it feel like?

With COPD, the airways become inflamed and the air sacs in the lungs are damaged. This causes the airways to become narrower, which makes it harder to breathe in and out. These breathing difficulties can affect many aspects of daily life and stops people from being able to breathe properly – some people describe it as feeling like they are suffocating. Shortness of breath is by far the most common of emphysema symptoms. Other symptoms are wheezing and a cough.

Most people with emphysema first notice something’s wrong when they become winded during a previously routine activity. This might be climbing stairs or mowing the lawn. After a while some will find themselves gasping for breath even while sitting on a chair. Finally, some patients are be confined to a wheelchair and become dependent upon extra oxygen 24 hours a day.

Once this damage is done, it is irreversible. But quitting smoking can help manage the condition and prevent it getting any worse.

There is lots of advice on the British Lung Foundation website about symptoms, treatment, support available and managing the condition. Find more here.