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Updated 19 October 2022 | Approved By

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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) – Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

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What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term that describes a group of lung conditions, including emphysema, chronic asthma and bronchitis [1]. COPD causes several changes in the lung, including the narrowing of airways, making breathing hard to breathe normally. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that more than 460,000 Australians have COPD [2]. This is mainly in those over 40, with around half not knowing that they have this condition. Indigenous Australians are 2.5 times more likely to live with COPD than non-indigenous people. Everybody experiences COPD differently. Some may not feel symptoms in the beginning, while others experience may need more assistance being independent. Speaking to a doctor 24-7 Medcare is essential to receive a diagnosis and medical treatment. Additionally, our GPs may be able to refer you to the necessary services to help you manage the condition.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Symptoms

Symptoms of COPD will depend on several factors, including how far it progressed, the severity and the general health of the individual. The main symptoms of COPD are breathlessness, coughing and the production of phlegm [3]. Other symptoms can also include:
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing
  • Reduced physical fitness and function
  • Low energy levels
  • Swelling around the ankles
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss


COPD Causes

COPD is caused by inflammation and damage to the lungs. These changes can cause the airways to narrow, affecting the lung's ability to function correctly. Over time, this can lead to more permanent changes, like airflow limitation and increased phlegm production. Smoking is the most crucial cause of the changes seen with COPD [3]. Other factors that may also contribute to this condition include:
  • Work hazards (e.g. breathing in fumes, working with chemicals, etc.)
  • Poor nutrition
  • Histories of lung diseases, such as pneumonia or asthma
  • Being physically inactive
  • Having poor health (e.g. being obese, heart disease, etc.)
  • Presence of pollution
  • Having a family history


COPD Diagnosis and Tests

If you have any breathing or respiratory issues, visit your doctor for a diagnosis and testing if required. Your doctor will take a thorough history of your smoking history and your symptoms. This will be helpful for your doctor to determine what tests may be necessary.

Physical Examination

While a physical examination will not be enough to diagnose COPD, it may be helpful to assess the condition of your lung(s). For instance, your doctor may use a stethoscope to listen to your lungs or a fitness test to determine your overall health.


Spirometry is a test that is used to measure the airflow and functioning of the lungs. This test requires you to breathe in and out of a spirometer device. Doctors use these tests to look for airflow limitation, a key feature of COPD [3]. Results before and after the use of medications (e.g. bronchodilators) may be able to differentiate COPD from asthma. One feature of COPD is that any airflow limitation is irreversible, unlike asthma. This is the most common test used to diagnose this condition.

Imaging Investigations

Tests, such as x-rays or CT scans, provide detailed images inside the body, including the features of your lungs. While these scans alone are not enough to diagnose COPD, they are used to screen other conditions.

Arterial Blood Gas Analysis

An arterial blood gas test will be performed by looking at carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the blood. It is an important test to see how the lung is functioning.

COPD Treatments

The purpose of medical treatments for COPD is to preserve function, prevent deterioration and manage flare-ups. Multiple treatments and services are available to help manage those living with COPD. Examples of treatments for COPD include:

Stop Smoking

Being able to stop smoking is the most practical step for managing COPD and improving overall lung health. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, it is the only treatment shown to improve the progression of this condition [4].


Doctors can also prescribe medications to help relieve symptoms immediately and open up the lungs' airways. Most medications are delivered using an inhaler. Make sure you correctly use these inhalers for appropriate delivery of the medications [4].

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation is an education and exercise program that helps improve lung function and breathlessness. Several health professionals can be involved in pulmonary rehabilitation, including physiotherapists, nutritionists, exercise physiologists and doctors [5]. Hospital clinics often deliver these programs in outpatient departments where registered COPD patients can participate. Your doctor and/or specialist may require referrals.

Oxygen Therapy

Oxygen may be recommended for COPD patients with low blood oxygen levels [3]. Overall, this can help with breathlessness and fitness and improve other symptoms. Treatment can be delivered through a mask or nasal prongs at home.

Non-Invasive Ventilation

Non-invasive ventilation provides breathing support through a mask or similar device. While the machine doesn't breathe for you, it helps you live in and out more effectively. It may be necessary for those who are experiencing breathing problems.


Generally, the changes to the lungs in those with COPD are irreversible. The progression of the condition will depend on getting the necessary treatment, especially stopping smoking and/or reducing exposure to harmful gasses [3]. Those with more severe lung changes are more likely to experience worsening symptoms.


Complications of COPD will depend on the severity of the condition and lung health. Examples of common complications include:
  • Exacerbations or flare-ups of symptoms
  • Lung infections
  • Pulmonary hypertension
  • General infections
  • Heart disease
  • Respiratory failure


Receiving quality care from highly experienced doctors is essential for a prompt diagnosis and receiving the correct medical treatment. With 24-7 MedCare, you can experience telemedicine from the convenience of your own home. Our friendly online doctors will be available 24/7 for a consultation, anytime and anywhere in Australia.

To make a telehealth appointment booking, simply click on the button below.



  1. Pollack, A., & Britt, H. (2015). Plantar fasciitis in Australian general practice. Australian family physician, 44(3), 90-91. Monteagudo, M., de Albornoz, P. M., Gutierrez, B., Tabuenca, J., & Álvarez, I. (2018). Plantar fasciopathy: a current concepts review. EFORT open reviews, 3(8), 485-493.
  2. Buchanan, B. K., & Kushner, D. (2017). Plantar fasciitis.
  3. Grecco, M. V., Brech, G. C., & Greve, J. M. D. A. (2013). One-year treatment follow-up of plantar fasciitis: radial shockwaves vs. conventional physiotherapy. Clinics, 68, 1089-1095.