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What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

What is COPD?1

Chronic — means it’s long term

Obstructive — refers to the narrowing in your airways — it obstructs the passage of air and makes it difficult to breathe

Pulmonary disease — means it affects your lungs

COPD refers to a group of lung conditions and it’s possible to have more than one at the same time. There are two common types of COPD that you may have heard of — emphysema and persistent bronchitis.


Emphysema affects the small air sacs (called alveoli) at the end of your airways that inflate like balloons when you breathe in. It means the air sacs in your lungs have been damaged, making them less elastic and harder to inflate, and making it harder for you to breathe in — imagine trying to blow up a really thick balloon.2

Healthy air sac
Less elastic air sac
Persistent bronchitis1

Your airways (the tubes that air passes through when you breathe in and out) are called bronchioles, so when they’re inflamed it’s called bronchitis. This inflammation (or swelling) narrows the space for air to get through, making it difficult to breathe. Your airways will also produce excess mucus, narrowing the space even more. People with bronchitis often produce phlegm (mucus expelled through the mouth) too.

Approval code: RESP-IE-NP-00022 

Date of preparation: October 2020

  1. British Lung Foundation. COPD: Living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Available at: Last accessed: October 2020.
  2. CT of the airways. Boiselle PM, Lynch D (Eds.) 2008, page 18.

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