What are asthma and COPD?

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What is asthma?

Asthma is a common, long-term (chronic) disease, affecting more than 339 million people worldwide.1 It is a disease of the airways in the lungs.

In people with asthma, the airways become swollen, narrower and extra-sensitive to irritants like tobacco smoke or air pollution.2 This creates breathing difficulties, a tight chest, a cough or a wheeze. When this is severe, it is described as an asthma flare-up, an attack or an exacerbation.3

Who does it affect?

Asthma affects people at any age, and often more than one person in a family will have it. Having allergies can increase the risk of having asthma.2

How is it diagnosed and treated?

A doctor will ask about symptoms and any other cases in the family. They will measure how well the lungs are working by asking people to blow into a machine called a spirometer.

Most medicines for asthma are given using inhalers. Most people with asthma need two types of medicine:

  1. Relievers – used to stop symptoms once they start
  2. Controllers – used every day to prevent flare-ups

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a common, but preventable, lung disease. Moderate-to-severe COPD affects approximately 65 million people globally.4

Smoking, or being exposed to other harmful chemicals, can cause the airways in the lungs to become swollen and narrow and cause them to produce too much mucus. If this continues for a long time, the lungs become damaged. Air gets trapped in the lungs and cannot be breathed out. This makes people breathless and causes a cough that does not go away. COPD can make people prone to flu and chest infections, which can make COPD worse.5

Who does it affect?

COPD commonly affects adults, mostly those who are older than 40 years of age and who are smokers or ex-smokers. People who have lived in homes with fumes from cooking or heaters, or who worked in very dusty or smoky places, can also get COPD.5

How is it diagnosed and treated?

A doctor will ask about symptoms, smoking habits, and home or work conditions. They will measure how well the lungs are working.

Inhalers with medicine to relax the airways are used to treat COPD. Treatment with flu vaccines is also necessary. For severe COPD, oxygen therapy and breathing (ventilation) support may be needed.5

Lifestyle changes can also help people with COPD. If a person smokes, stopping smoking will slow down the lung damage. More exercise and having a healthy weight can reduce symptoms.

October 2022


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