What is COPD?

Learn more about the lung disease COPD, how to manage its symptoms, breathe easier and live longer.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe.

The Lung Foundation Australia estimates that COPD impacts almost 1.5 million people across Australia, and its main cause is smoking or exposure to smoking.

COPD is a progressive disease, which means it worsens over time. Through diagnosis, quitting smoking and getting support, COPD can be managed so you can breathe easier and live a more enjoyable life.

Jump to information about:

Get the facts


An icon showing the number '100,000s'
Hundreds of thousands of Australians living with symptoms of COPD do not have a formal doctor's diagnosis [1]
An icon of Australia with the words '1 in 7'
1 in 7 Australians over the age of 40 has COPD [2]
An icon of a cigarette packet with a stop sign overlaid on top
If you smoke, quitting can improve your COPD symptoms and slow progress of the disease [3]

What does COPD stand for?

The letter C ‘Chronic’ means the disease is ongoing. You will always have symptoms, and these will progress over time. The good news is that you can do a lot to manage symptoms and slow the disease.

The letter O ‘Obstructive’ means the disease blocks the air from moving in and out of your lungs normally. This is caused by swelling and mucus in the airways of your lungs and damage to lung tissues.

The letter P ‘Pulmonary’ means the disease affects your lungs.

The letter D ‘Disease’ means your lungs are damaged and not performing normally.


What causes COPD?

There are a few causes of COPD, but the main cause is smoking and exposure to smoking.

People most at risk of COPD:

  • are 35 years or older, and
  • have a history of smoking or exposure to dust, gas, fumes and/or air pollution.

Quitting smoking at any age will reduce your risk of getting COPD. It will also slow the disease and ease your symptoms if you already have COPD.



What are the symptoms of COPD?

The first symptoms of COPD tend to come on slowly and can be very mild. People often mistake their symptoms as signs of ageing, lack of fitness or asthma.

As COPD progresses, more symptoms develop. The most common symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath (breathlessness)
  • a repetitive cough that does not get better
  • increased phlegm or mucus which is often thick and white or brownish in colour
  • feeling tired
  • more frequent chest infections
  • taking longer to recover from a cold or chest infection.

See your GP if you have any of these symptoms. COPD is easier to treat if it is diagnosed early.

What are the stages of COPD?

As COPD is progressive, there are three stage of the disease. It is important to be aware of these stages and to speak to your GP if you notice any symptoms or if your symptoms start to change.

  1. Mild COPD
    The first symptoms of COPD tend to come on slowly and can be very mild. Symptoms may come and go, and may have very little or no impact on your life. You may cough up mucus in the mornings or feel more breathless than usual if you walk quickly or exert yourself.
  2. Moderate COPD
    You start to notice symptoms almost every day. You find it harder to breathe when you do everyday tasks like hanging out the washing. You may cough more and produce more mucus. The mucus is often thick and white or brownish. You feel tired and take longer to recover from a cold.
  3. Severe COPD.
    You have symptoms most of the time. You may find it hard to climb stairs. You feel tired even after resting. You cough up a lot of mucus and often get chest infections. You take weeks to recover from a cold or chest infection.

What does COPD feel like?

COPD can leave you short of breath. It feels a bit like breathing through a straw. It is hard to breathe in and hard to breathe out.

"Every word had to be measured, every sentence he had to think through before he started on it to make sure he had enough breath."

     - Hear Larry Emdur speak about his father’s experience with COPD

What is a COPD flare-up?

A flare-up – sometimes called an acute exacerbation – is when your COPD symptoms become particularly severe.

Signs of a COPD flare-up are:

  • coughing more than usual
  • finding it harder to breathe than normal
  • any change in phlegm or mucus, including how often you cough it up
  • feeling more tired and less active than usual.

Preventing flare-ups is important because an untreated flare-up can mean hospitalisation, and each flare-up does further damage to the lungs.

Your COPD treatment will help prevent flare-ups or make them easier to handle. So, it is important to work with your doctor and stick to your treatment plan.

Print your plan and keep it where you can see it every day. If you have a flare-up, the plan will remind you what to do.

You may need to call your doctor or 000 if:

  • you cannot breathe or talk
  • you feel confused
  • your lips or nails are grey or blue
  • your heartbeat is very fast or not regular.

How is COPD diagnosed?

Spirometry is the most common breathing test used to confirm a diagnosis of COPD. The tests involves blowing as long and hard as you can into a tube connected to a spirometry machine. The machine assesses how well your lungs work by measuring how much air you can breathe in and out, and how quickly you can exhale. The results show whether you have COPD or another lung condition such as asthma. They also show whether you have mild, moderate or severe COPD.

Other tests for COPD can include:

  • a chest X-ray
  • a chest CT scan, which takes more detailed pictures than an X-ray
  • arterial blood gas analysis – a blood test that measures how well your lungs bring oxygen into your blood and remove carbon dioxide.

Your doctor may also suggest tests to rule out other causes of your symptoms.

Early diagnosis and a management plan can slow the disease, help you feel healthier and keep you out of hospital.

How can you manage COPD?

Although the damage to your lungs cannot be reversed, early management of COPD is important to help you feel better. By taking the following steps, you can improve your quality of life, slow the progression of symptoms, and keep your COPD well managed, including reducing the risk of flare-ups.

Quit smoking icon  Quit smoking

If you smoke, quitting is the most crucial thing you can do to reduce the impact of COPD. For help to quit, use our tips, visit www.icanquit.com.au or call Quitline on 13 QUIT (13 78 48).


Eat healthy icon  Eat a healthy diet

People living with chronic lung conditions use 25–50% more energy than people with normal lung function. A nourishing diet of vegetables, fruit, grains, legumes, lean meats, fish and dairy can help your body better fight infections, flare-ups and daily symptoms.


Active icon  Stay active

Being active gives you energy, helps you sleep and reduces feelings of stress. It also makes your breathing muscles stronger. These benefits will help you manage your COPD. They can also reduce your risk of getting other illnesses that worsen COPD. Completing a pulmonary rehabilitation program can help you learn exercises to help you manage your COPD.


Doctor icon  Get treatment early

Talk to your GP as soon as you notice any symptoms that might be COPD. If tests confirm you have COPD, your doctor will usually prescribe an inhaler to help manage your symptoms and reduce the chance of flare-ups. You may need to take more than one inhaler or try different ones to get the best symptom control.