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Guide by Condition: COPD

Posted by Mike Phipps on December 10, 2018

Guide by Condition: COPD


COPD is a common condition and affects around 1.2 million people in the UK.  Many people can live with it for years before diagnosis as the symptoms are often dismissed until they worsen.  Although there is currently no cure, treatments, medication and mobility aids can help you manage symptoms and live well with COPD.

What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a broad term for conditions caused by irreversible damage to the lungs which result in breathing problems. It is caused by the narrowing of the lungs airways, which reduces the function of the lungs.

The main cause being smoking or second-hand smoke. Although usually affecting older adults, some symptoms may start to appear around the mid-30s. While there is evidence that COPD runs in families, out of the millions affected by the disease this is very few. While smoking any kind of tobacco is confirmed as the main cause, inhaling chemicals or certain dust types can also cause it, for example, many ex-coal miners have developed the disease.

There are two main types of the disease:

  • Chronic Bronchitis - there are two types of bronchitis, acute and chronic. Chronic being more serious, meaning it doesn’t go away. It is an inflammation of the airways which results in coughing with phlegm, which occurs when the small hair-like projections called cilia, that line your bronchial tubes get damaged. When cilia are damaged, it makes it harder to cough up mucus causing more coughing, irritation and mucus production, which means airways become swollen and clogged, resulting in obstruction and increased shortness of breath. This is also commonly referred to as “smokers cough”.
  • Emphysema - occurs when the tiny air sacs in your lungs break down and become larger meaning the lungs are less able to get oxygen from the air and less effective at getting rid of carbon dioxide. The walls of the damaged sacs are stretched and less-flexible so air ends up trapped inside the lungs, which means the airways don’t push out air as well. Because so much air is trapped in the lungs, the diaphragm can become shortened and unable to assist breathing. This makes is feel like it is hard to take a deep breath.

While everyone experiences COPD differently, some of the main symptoms include breathlessness, excessive phlegm and mucus, wheezing, regular chest infections, tiredness and fatigue and oedema.

What is the treatment for COPD?

There is currently no cure but drug treatments are available. Some common treatments include inhalers and tablets to help relax airways or if you have excess phlegm. Steroids and antibiotics that are usually in tablet form can also help if you have an infection or inflamed airways. Medication aids can help to keep you organised and on time with taking pills. Some people who have severe COPD may require medication through a mouthpiece or nebuliser. Usually as a last resort, surgical treatments include lung transplants, bullectomy and lung volume reduction.

If you do have a COPD diagnosis, it is important to take care of yourself. Steps you will be advised to take from your doctor will include taking your medication, stop smoking if you currently do, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight. Keep up to date with vaccinations as COPD puts a strain on your body making you more vulnerable to infections. Hot weather and humidity can cause breathing problems so it is always a good idea to keep an eye on what is happening, the MET Office also run cold weather alerts during the winter. The air quality that you breathe can also be a factor in increasing flare ups for example dusty places, fumes, smoke, air fresheners, cleaning products, perfume and hairspray should all be avoided.

Your doctor may also advise you on using certain breathing techniques and exercises that some people find to help breathlessness.

More information

British Lung Foundation -