Updated 19 March 2018

The cough that never seems to go away...

People used to speak about emphysema, or chronic bronchitis, but Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a collective term now used to describe several chronic lung diseases.

What is COPD?

This is not merely a "smoker’s cough" but a serious and progressive life-threatening disease, which causes ongoing breathing difficulties – and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2015 it killed more than three million people worldwide. 

A large international study in the Journal of Thoracic Disease established that the highest prevalence of stage 2 (or higher) COPD was among people in Cape Town, and surmised that both smoking and occupational dust were responsible. 

The causes of COPD

Tobacco smoke (this includes secondhand exposure); pollution (especially indoor air pollution from cooking fuels in low-income countries); and fumes; as well as frequent lower respiratory infections during childhood, can all be causes of COPD. Many people are exposed to fumes, dust and pollution while at work.

About 2–3% of people with COPD have a DNA defect, which can lead to the development of this lung disease. 

The World Health Organization estimates that by 2030 tobacco-related deaths will increase to 8.3 million per year. 

The symptoms of COPD

This disease develops slowly and mostly affects people over 40. The disease is characterised by breathlessness, a chronic cough and mucus production. These symptoms may worsen, making everyday activities that are slightly strenuous, such as walking up a flight of stairs, or carrying things, difficult. 

Lifestyle changes to make

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the preferred lifestyle changes for someone living with COPD should be to cease smoking and avoid any secondhand smoke. In addition, they should also avoid places where one could be exposed to dust, fumes or any other toxic substances.

Consider whether your diet is balanced. When you suffer from frequent shortness of breath it can sometimes be difficult to eat, and you could struggle to maintain a nutritious diet. Consult a physician about how to ensure you are getting all the nutrients you need, and for your own peace of mind consider taking a good daily vitamin and mineral supplement.

Physical activity can be challenging when you have COPD, but being active and strengthening the muscles that help you to breathe could help increase overall wellness.

Medical treatment of COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a condition that has no cure, but it can be treated. Treatment focuses on reducing symptoms as well as preventing complications.

Strict adherence to prescribed medication will help prevent life-threatening complications, such as heart attack. 

Other treatments include: 

  • Medications: bronchodilators, inhaled steroids, combination steroids, oral steroids, antibiotics
  • Mucolytics
  • Lung therapies: oxygen, pulmonary rehab
  • Surgery: lung volume reduction surgery, lung transplant

People who are at risk for COPD often mistake their symptoms for other things. Answer these questions and see if you are at risk of COPD. 


Buist AS et al. International variation in the prevalence of COPD (the BOLD Study): a population-based prevalence study. Lancet. 2007 . Volume 370. Pp 741 – 750. (Quoted by The Journal of Thoracic Disease, 2011)