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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Fact sheet N°315
Reviewed October 2013


Key facts

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a life-threatening lung disease that interferes with normal breathing – it is more than a “smoker’s cough”.
  • An estimated 64 million people have COPD worldwide in 2004. (1)
  • More than 3 million people died of COPD in 2005, which is equal to 5% of all deaths globally that year.
  • Almost 90% of COPD deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.
  • The primary cause of COPD is tobacco smoke (through tobacco use or second-hand smoke).
  • The disease now affects men and women almost equally, due in part to increased tobacco use among women in high-income countries.
  • COPD is not curable, but treatment can slow the progress of the disease.
  • Total deaths from COPD are projected to increase by more than 30% in the next 10 years without interventions to cut risks, particularly exposure to tobacco smoke.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung ailment that is characterized by a persistent blockage of airflow from the lungs. It is an under-diagnosed, life-threatening lung disease that interferes with normal breathing and is not fully reversible. The more familiar terms of chronic bronchitis and emphysema are no longer used; they are now included within the COPD diagnosis.

Symptoms

The most common symptoms of COPD are breathlessness (or a "need for air"), abnormal sputum (a mix of saliva and mucus in the airway), and a chronic cough. Daily activities, such as walking up a short flight of stairs or carrying a suitcase, can become very difficult as the condition gradually worsens.

Diagnosis and treatment

COPD is confirmed by a simple diagnostic test called "spirometry" that measures how much air a person can inhale and exhale, and how fast air can move into and out of the lungs. Because COPD develops slowly, it is frequently diagnosed in people aged 40 or older.

COPD is not curable. Various forms of treatment can help control its symptoms and increase quality of life for people with the illness. For example, medicines that help dilate major air passages of the lungs can improve shortness of breath.

The availability of treatment options for COPD differ across varying resource settings. WHO has released a guideline (2) with specific recommendations for COPD management in primary health care in resource constrained setting.

Who is at risk?

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 solid fuel used for cooking and heating) in low-income countries, the disease now affects men and women almost equally.

Almost 90% of COPD deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, where effective strategies for prevention and control are not always implemented or accessible.

Risk factors

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

  • indoor air pollution (such as solid fuel used for cooking and heating);
  • outdoor air pollution;
  • occupational dusts and chemicals (vapors, irritants, and fumes);
  • frequent lower respiratory infections during childhood.

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.

WHO response

WHO’s work on COPD is part of the organization's overall efforts to prevent and control chronic diseases. WHO aims to:

  • raise awareness about the global epidemic of chronic diseases;
  • create more healthy environments, especially for poor and disadvantaged populations;
  • decrease common chronic disease risk factors, such as tobacco use, unhealthy diet and physical inactivity;
  • prevent premature deaths and avoidable disabilities from major chronic diseases.

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 harmful exposure to tobacco. It is the first global health treaty negotiated by World Health Organization, and has been ratified by more than 167 countries.

WHO also leads the Global Alliance against Chronic Respiratory Diseases (GARD), a voluntary alliance of national and international organizations, institutions, and agencies working towards the common goal of reducing the global burden of chronic respiratory diseases. Its vision is a world where all people breathe freely. GARD focuses specifically on the needs of low- and middle-income countries and vulnerable populations.


1. The global burden of disease: 2004 update, 2008.

2. Prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases: guidelines for primary health care in low resource settings, 2012.

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