Causes, symptoms and diagnosis

Long term conditions: COPD causes

What can cause COPD?

The most common cause of COPD is smoking. Once you give up smoking you slow down its progress or if you stop early enough you may prevent it occurring at all. There may also be some work-related causes, such as coal dust inhalation, and some inherited problems can also cause COPD. It is not yet known whether pollution has any effect on the development of COPD.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Cough, phlegm and shortness of breath can all be symptoms of COPD. Initially some people may only notice their symptoms in winter, or they might put them down to chest infections or 'smoker's cough'. This means that they might not seek help at an early stage of the disease.

Your GP might suspect COPD if you are a current or ex-smoker, or meet another risk factor (as described above) and have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Breathlessness on movement
  • Chronic cough
  • Regular sputum (phlegm) production
  • Frequent winter 'bronchitis'
  • Wheezing.  

To test for COPD, your GP can do a simple lung function test called spirometry - this is done using a machine you blow into that can measure whether your airways have narrowed. Most of the time, your GP should be able to do this in their practice, but if they cannot, they can refer you elsewhere to have the test. 

In some cases you may need more detailed tests and a referral to hospital. These tests may include an x-ray or scan, and/or different lung function tests.  

You will be told the result and it is recorded in your medical records. It is important to know whether it is COPD or whether it is asthma, as asthma can have similar symptoms to COPD but the treatment is very different. The spirometry test will give a clearer picture of your condition and how best to treat it.

It is very important that you ask the doctor or nurse any questions that you have. You may want to ask them:

  • Have I got COPD or asthma?
  • What exactly is COPD?
  • How did I get COPD?
  • Will I get better?
  • Should I see a specialist?

Many people diagnosed with COPD have never have had a spirometry test, however it is very important that you have one as this helps confirm the diagnosis. If you are not offered this test you should ask your GP for one.

After your GP has diagnosed your COPD, they should use the Medical Research Council (MRC) dyspnoea scale to grade the effect of breathlessness on your day to day life. The scale is:

  1. Not troubled by breathlessness except on strenuous exercise.
  2. Short of breath when hurrying or walking up a slight hill.
  3. Walks slower than contemporaries on level ground because of breathlessness or has to stop for breath when walking at own pace.
  4. Stops for breath after walking about 100m or after a few minutes on level ground.
  5. Too breathless to leave the house, or breathless when dressing or undressing. 

There is no cure for COPD but a lot can be done to relieve your symptoms. These include: