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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease characterized by chronic obstruction of lung airflow that interferes with normal breathing and is not fully reversible. The more familiar terms 'chronic bronchitis' and 'emphysema' are no longer used, but are now included within the COPD diagnosis. COPD is not simply a "smoker's cough" but an under-diagnosed, life-threatening lung disease.

The most common symptoms of COPD are breathlessness, or a 'need for air', excessive sputum production, and a chronic cough. Daily activities, such as walking up a short flight of stairs, may become very difficult as the disease worsens.

A COPD diagnosis is confirmed by a simple test called spirometry, which measures how deeply a person can breathe and how fast air can move into and out of the lungs. Because COPD develops slowly, its is most frequently diagnosed in people aged 40 years or older.

COPD is preventable, but not curable. Treatment can help slow disease progression, but COPD generally worsens over time.

Facts about COPD

  • According to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, 210 million people have COPD.
  • More than 3 million people died of COPD in 2005, corresponding to 5% of all deaths globally.
  • Almost 90% of COPD deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.
  • At one time, COPD was more common in men, but because of increased tobacco use among women in high-income countries and the higher risk of exposure to indoor air pollution (such as biomass fuel used for cooking and heating) in low-income countries, the disease now affects men and women almost equally.
  • Total deaths from COPD are projected to increase by more than 30% in the next 10 years unless urgent action is taken to reduce underlying risk factors, especially tobacco use.
  • Tobacco use caused an estimated 5.4 million deaths in 2005. Tobacco-related deaths are projected to increase to 8.3 million deaths per year by 2030.

The causes

The primary cause of COPD is tobacco smoke (including second-hand or passive exposure). Other risk factors include:

  • Indoor air pollution (such as biomass fuel used for cooking and heating);
  • Outdoor air pollution;
  • Occupational dusts and chemicals (vapours, irritants, and fumes);
  • Frequent lower respiratory infections during childhood.

Reducing the COPD burden

The most important measure for preventing COPD and for stopping disease progression is avoiding tobacco smoke (including passive exposure). Although COPD cannot be cured, appropriate management can control symptoms, slow disease progression and enable people to enjoy good quality of life.

WHO's strategy for prevention and control of COPD

WHO recognizes that COPD is of major public health importance.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) was developed in response to the globalization of the tobacco epidemic, with the aim to protect billions of people from the devastating impact of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke. It is the first global health treaty negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization, and has been ratified by more than 140 countries.

WHO also leads the Global Alliance against Chronic Respiratory Diseases (GARD), which is a voluntary alliance of national and international organizations, institutions, and agencies working towards the common goal of improving global lung health. Its vision is a world where all people breathe freely. GARD promotes an integrated approach that capitalizes upon synergies of chronic respiratory diseases with other chronic diseases. GARD focuses specifically on the needs of low and middle income countries and vulnerable populations. The Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (GOLD) is part of GARD.

WHO’s work on COPD is part of the overall WHO chronic disease prevention and control work of the Department of Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion. The strategic objectives of the Department are to raise awareness about the global epidemic of chronic diseases; create healthy environments, especially for poor and disadvantaged populations; slow and reverse trends in common chronic disease risk factors such as unhealthy diet and physical inactivity; and prevent premature deaths and avoidable disability due to major chronic diseases.


Sources: US Department of Health; The World Health Organization


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