Diseases & Conditions


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Diseases & Conditions

What is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a serious disease in which the lung airways that carry air in and out of the lungs become inflamed and narrowed. This will block the airways making it difficult to empty air out of the lungs and difficult to breathe. COPD is a progressive disease, which means that it gets worse over time and people may be short of breath even while doing simple daily tasks. A sudden worsening of symptoms known as exacerbation or flare-up occurs at time.


COPD is an important cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. It is the fifth leading cause of death in high-income countries and the sixth leading cause of death in low- and middle-income countries.1


A recent study showed that the prevalence of COPD among smokers is 14.2% in Saudi Arabia. This prevalence rate is similar to the prevalence rate reported from many parts of the world.2


What are the causes and risk factors of COPD?

COPD happens when gases and particles are inhaled and injure the airways of the lungs causing irritation and inflammation.3

COPD can be caused by many factors:

  • Smoking: Smoking is the most common cause and main risk factor for COPD. Inhaling smoke or breathing smoke filled air (secondhand smoke) will cause an inflammatory response in the lungs.


  • Environmental factors such as heavy exposure to certain dusts at work, chemicals and indoor or outdoor air pollution contribute to COPD.


  • Genetics: Based on a person’s individual genetic composition, they may be more likely to suffer lung damage when exposed to lung irritants.


What are the symptoms of COPD?

COPD usually exhibits no or mild symptoms at first. As the disease progresses, symptoms usually worsen, particularly if smoking exposure continues. The most common symptoms include:4

  • Coughing and spitting up phlegm (mucus)
  • Wheezing (a whistling noise when breathing)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Chest tightness
  • A bluish discoloration of the skin (lips or fingernails) due an inadequate oxygenation of the blood.
  • Unintended weight loss



How is COPD diagnosed?

COPD is usually diagnosed after a consultation with a doctor, as well as breathing tests.5

  • Consultation


  • Breathing tests: 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.


  • Other tests:
    • Chest X-ray
    • Chest computed tomography (CT) scan to create a picture of the lungs showing signs of COPD.
    • An arterial blood gas test to measure the oxygen level in the blood showing the severity of COPD.



How is COPD treated?


  • Reduce the risk factors:6
    • Smoking cessation is the single most effective way to reduce the risk of developing COPD.
    • Reduction of exposure to secondhand smoking, dusts, and chemicals from workplaces, and indoor and outdoor air pollutants.


  • Relieve the symptoms:
    • Medications: Doctors use several kinds of medications to treat the symptoms and complications of COPD. The medications include bronchodilator medications such as theophylline, inhaled glucocorticosteroids, oral glucocorticosteroids, and antibiotics.
    • Lung therapies: Oxygen therapy has been shown to improve the general health and exercise-training programs have been used to relieve both exercise tolerance and symptoms of shortness of breath and fatigue.


  • Manage exacerbations of the disease: Even with ongoing treatment, a patient may experience times when symptoms become worse for days or weeks. This is called an acute exacerbation. Exacerbations may be caused by a respiratory infection, air pollution or other triggers of inflammation and they need to be treated immediately with medications.


  1. Lopez, Alan D., et al. "Global Burden of Disease and Risk Factors 2006." Washington: The World Bank (2006).
  2. Al Ghobain, Mohammed, Mohamed S. Al-Hajjaj, and Siraj Omar Wali. "Prevalence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among smokers attending primary healthcare clinics in Saudi Arabia." Annals of Saudi medicine 31.2 (2011): 129.
  3. Patient information: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including emphysema (Beyond the Basics) (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including emphysema). http://www.uptodate.com/contents/chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-disease-copd-including-emphysema-beyond-the-basics
  4. COPD (Symptoms). http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/copd/basics/symptoms/con-20032017
  5. How Is COPD Diagnosed? (- NHLBI, NIH). http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/copd/diagnosis
  6. COPD management (WHO). http://www.who.int/respiratory/copd/management/en/