COPD affecting 1.45 million Australians: but what is it?

COPD is a progressive disease that affects around 1.45 million Australians. NPS MedicineWise is launching an educational program for consumers & health professionals.

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a lung condition that makes it difficult to breathe. It is a progressive disease that is estimated to affect around 1.45 million Australians.1

Despite its prevalence, Australians with COPD may not have heard of the name of their condition or fully understand just what it means to have COPD.

This week NPS MedicineWise is launching an educational program on COPD for consumers and health professionals. For people with COPD it aims to raise awareness of the condition and improve their knowledge of the disease. Health professionals will receive an update on diagnostic issues and optimal use of medicines for COPD to help people with the condition manage their symptoms and maintain a good quality of life.

NPS MedicineWise medical adviser, Dr Andrew Boyden, says that COPD is an ongoing lung disease where the small airways in the lungs are damaged, making it harder for air to get in and out. Many people may know the condition as emphysema or chronic bronchitis.

The condition is most commonly found in smokers or former smokers although it can occur in people who have been exposed to other lung irritants. COPD is characterised by:

  • shortness of breath
  • a repetitive cough
  • increased mucus production in the airways

In 2014 COPD was the fifth leading cause of death in Australia. In that year 7,025 people died from COPD (4.6% of all deaths).2

“In the past the condition was known by different names including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. This has been replaced by an umbrella term – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, known as COPD,” says Dr Boyden.

“Becoming breathless when climbing stairs can be one of the first signs that you may have COPD. Other symptoms can include a persistent phlegmy cough.”

A lung function test called a spirometry test is needed to accurately diagnose COPD and identify the severity of the condition. Spirometry assesses how well your lungs work by measuring how much air you can inhale and exhale as well as the speed at which you can exhale. A spirometry test is performed by health professionals such as GPs and nurses.

“Spirometry is the gold standard for diagnosis of COPD,” says Dr Boyden.

“Patients blow into a machine and it assesses the volume of air inhaled and exhaled. Anyone who has symptoms of COPD like shortness of breath should see their GP for an assessment to see whether they need a spirometry test.”

Spirometry assists in differentiating people with COPD from those with asthma – which is important as the two conditions require different management strategies. Some people may have features of both asthma and COPD.

“Currently there is no cure for COPD but the good news is that there are very effective inhaler medicines people can take to help them breathe easier and improve their quality of life. One or more inhaler medications is usually prescribed to manage the condition.”

“One of the best ways Australians can prevent COPD is to avoid smoking, or stop smoking if already a smoker,” says Dr Boyden.

A number of new COPD inhalers have been released into the Australian market in recent years to help people manage their condition. The new NPS MedicineWise educational program will help consumers and health professionals select inhaler medicines that best match individual needs.

“We know that many people do not use their inhalers correctly, and therefore are not optimising their use of medicines, so the program also has a focus on correct inhaler use,” adds Dr Boyden.

“We’re urging anyone currently being treated for COPD to consult with their GP or pharmacist to ensure their inhaler technique is correct. This will help to maximise the benefit they are getting from their medications and provide better symptom relief for their condition.”

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1 Lung Foundation Australia estimates that over 1.45 million Australians have some form of COPD. Toelle B, Xuan W, Bird T, et al. Respiratory symptoms and illness in older Australians: The Burden of Obstructive Lung Disease (BOLD) study. Med J Aust 2013;198:144-148 [Online] (accessed 27 February 2017).

2 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. 2017. [Online] (accessed 27 February 2017).


Independent, evidence-based and not-for-profit, NPS MedicineWise enables better decisions about medicines and medical tests. We receive funding by the Australian Government Department of Health.

Dr Andrew Boyden has some availability for interviews.

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