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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Fact sheet N°315
Updated January 2015


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”.
  • More than 3 million people died of COPD in 2012, which is equal to 6% of all deaths globally that year.
  • More than 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.

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 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. It is essential to stop smoking to prevent the progression of COPD. 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 (1) with specific recommendations for COPD management in primary health care in resource-constrained settings.

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.

More than 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 (vapours, irritants and fumes);
  • frequent lower respiratory infections during childhood.

WHO response

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

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

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) was developed in response to the globalization of the tobacco epidemic to protect billions of people from harmful exposure to tobacco. It is the first global health treaty negotiated by WHO, and has been ratified by 180 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. Prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases: guidelines for primary health care in low resource settings, 2012.

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