What is COPD?

2 Nov, 2020

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is an umbrella term used to describe a group of progressive lung conditions.

These conditions include:

  • Emphysema
  • Chronic Bronchitis
  • Chronic Asthma

COPD occurs when the bronchial tubes in the lungs narrow, making it difficult for a person to breathe.

Causes of COPD

There are many causes:

  • Cigarette smoking. This includes if you are currently smoking, if you have smoked in the past or if you have been exposed to passive smoking throughout your lifetime. While not everyone who smokes gets COPD, most people who have smoked or been exposed to passive smoking throughout their lifetime.
  • Long term exposure to and contact with harmful pollutants such as dust, gas, chemical fumes, smoke, or air pollution.
  • Genetics. A small number of people who present with COPD have a form of emphysema caused by a protein disorder called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. This is where the body finds it difficult to produce one of the proteins (Alpha-1), which is used to protect the lungs.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Symptoms of COPD

COPD is a progressive lung condition that has three stages.


Early symptoms of COPD can go unnoticed. People often mistake their early symptoms as signs of old age, lack of fitness and or asthma. People who have mild COPD:

  • May not have any symptoms at all.
  • May cough up mucus in the morning or feel shorter of breath when exerting themselves.
  • May still be independent within their daily lives.

Moderate COPD

As COPD progresses, symptoms may be present almost every day. People who present with moderate COPD tend to find it increasingly more difficult to carry out their normal daily activities such as gardening, handing out the washing, getting dressed and carrying groceries without feeling short of breath. Other symptoms may include:

  • Feeling tired
  • A repetitive cough that does not get better
  • Increased phlegm or mucus production which is often thick, and white or brown in colour
  • Frequent chest infections

Severe COPD

People who have severe COPD will likely experience symptoms daily. Symptoms may include:

  • Difficulties walking up the stairs or across the room without feeling short of breath
  • Feeling tired most of the time, despite resting
  • Frequent coughing
  • Coughing up mucus
  • Frequent chest infections
  • Longer recovery times to recover from a cold or chest infection

COPD Flare-ups

A COPD flare-up occurs when a person’s symptoms worsen quickly, over a short period of time (a few days). Flare-ups can occur following an infection or can be triggered by air pollutants or irritants. Flare-ups generally occur in winter and can make it difficult for people to engage in everyday activities, whether that be self-care activities (showering and dressing) or leisure activities (going out with friends). Common symptoms of a flare-up include:

  • Coughing more than usual
  • Increased breathlessness
  • Changes in sputum (thicker)
  • Increased tiredness
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

If you or anyone you know starts to have difficulties walking, talking, and sleeping due to shortness of breath, it is important that phone an ambulance for urgent medical assistance.


While there is currently no cure for COPD, early diagnosis combined with disease management at the early stages of the condition can improve quality of life, slow the progression of the disease, reduce the risk of flare-ups, reduce mortality and keep people out of the hospital. If you feel you or anyone you know may have COPD, it is important to seek medical advice from your local GP. Your local GP may complete a lung function test a chest x-ray or CT to diagnose COPD.

Occupational Therapy Treatment

COPD is, unfortunately, a condition that cannot be reversed. As people progress through the stages of COPD, they may start to have difficulties completing activities of daily living (showering, dressing, cooking, cleaning, meeting up with friends, engaging in social sport) independently. Occupational Therapists aim to work with the client to identify ways in which the client can manage their symptoms to maintain independence in their daily life. Occupational therapists often help people with COPD manage their symptoms and manage their fatigue by working with the client to:

  1. Schedule rest breaks between activities.
  2. Implement strategies to simplify a task so that people have the energy to do the things they enjoy. This may include breaking down a task into smaller subtasks. Cutting up vegetables for dinner in the morning in preparation for cooking that night or completing household duties across multiple days, instead of all within one day.
  3. Implement strategies to relax and manage stress throughout the day.
  4. Improve upper limb strength through exercise training
  5. Implement adaptive equipment to conserve energy. Adaptive equipment may include mobility scooters (to manage symptoms/fatigue when outdoors), shoehorns (to limit bending when putting shoes on), shower chairs (to conserve energy in the shower client can sit, rather than stand), long-handled aids (to assist with dressing and shower).

Occupational Therapists may also provide information on breathing techniques that can be used to minimise breathlessness throughout the day and while performing daily activities. Occupational Therapists will work with their clients to ensure that they maintain their independence within their daily lives for as long as possible.

If you would like to learn more about how an Occupational Therapist could assist you with any COPD concerns, please call us on 1300 122 884.

Written by Emily Payne 

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