Dr Aidan O’Brien
President, Irish Thoracic Society
As one of the groups most vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19, the pandemic has been an anxious and challenging time for people with COPD.
COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a common, treatable lung condition. It is a chronic disease, so it will never go away, but there are many things that people can do to manage it, in order to enjoy the best possible quality of life.
COPD is an umbrella term for emphysema and bronchitis and is mainly due to exposure to harmful particles or gases that are inhaled, causing abnormalities to the airways and within the lungs.
COPD in Ireland
COPD remains a serious problem for people in Ireland and for our health system. The HSE’s NHQRS Annual Report 2020 estimates that 380,000 people are living with the disease yet only 110,000 are diagnosed. It states that at least 1,500 patients die each year of COPD and over 15,000 patients are admitted to hospital with it. The OECD reported that Ireland has the highest hospitalisation rate for COPD in 2017, the latest year for which international data is available.
Persistent symptoms such as a cough, phlegm and difficulty in breathing can be an indication of COPD.
Causes of COPD
Smoking is the most common cause of COPD but prolonged exposure to air pollution, such as environmental toxins, fumes and dust, is also a risk factor. This means that the disease is largely preventable by never smoking and/or avoiding long term exposure to harmful fumes, dust or gases. However, some people with an existing illness such as chronic asthma may be more prone to developing COPD, while others may be pre-disposed to it due to a hereditary lung condition known as Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.
Persistent symptoms such as a cough, phlegm and difficulty in breathing can be an indication of COPD. People over the age of 35 who have these symptoms, who are or have been smokers or who have a family history of the disease, should ask their GP for a COPD health check.
Help is at hand
Those living with COPD often experience social isolation, lack of mobility, reduced independence, frequent hospital admissions and mental health issues. People with COPD were identified as one of the groups most at risk of serious illness if they catch COVID-19 – this means the last 18 months have been a particularly anxious and challenging time for many.
Greater awareness of signs and symptoms of COPD and increased access to supports in the community for detecting and managing the condition are critically important.