Diagnosis and Treatment

older woman with doctor 

Visit your GP if you experience the symptoms described above, particularly if you are or have been a smoker and before they start to affect your day to day life. You won’t be wasting your GP’s time. If your GP has concerns, your condition can be monitored or you can have the test described below to check how your lungs are working.


As symptoms for COPD and asthma can be similar, the following test helps indicate which one you have and how best to treat it.

This involves breathing into a machine called a spirometer. This checks to see:

  • how much air you can force out of your lungs in one second and
  • the total amount of air you can breathe out.

The results show how well your lungs are working and whether your airways have narrowed.
You may also have a chest X-ray to rule out any other causes for your symptoms and a blood test, to check whether your symptoms are due to or made worse by iron deficiency anaemia.

Other tests may be needed to help understand how your lungs have been affected and help your GP identify and discuss treatment options with you


Treatments cannot cure COPD or repair damage already done but can help prevent your condition getting worse, relieve symptoms and help you to breathe more easily.

You may discuss a range of treatments, based on NICE guidance, with your GP - including lifestyle changes and medication - depending on:

  • how severe your COPD is;
  • how it is affecting your everyday life and
  • to take account of activities that are currently difficult but are activities you would like to go on doing.

You should have an annual seasonal flu vaccination and the ‘one off’ ‘pneumo’ vaccination to minimise the risk of chest infections. 

Lifestyle changes

Stop smoking – giving up can slow down the damage done to your lungs and make you feel a lot better. If your COPD has been picked up early, this may be all you need to do to relieve your symptoms. If your condition is more advanced, it should reduce coughing and the production of phlegm.

The difficulties of giving up smoking are well known, so ask your GP or practice nurse how the NHS can help you. You may prefer to look on the NHS Smokefree website for more information or call their helpline for advice.

Protect your lungs from irritants - as your lungs are sensitive, a smoky atmosphere is not good for you, so ask people if they would mind not smoking in your company. Also don’t use strong smelling products and scented candles at home and avoid underground car parks and other places where exhaust fumes build up.

Eat a healthy diet and watch your weight – try to keep your weight within the normal range for your height and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables.

It’s important to keep an eye on your weight. Breathing will be easier if you aren’t carrying excess weight, so losing weight makes a difference to how you feel and what you can do.

You are also prone to becoming underweight if you have COPD. This may be because:

  • eating makes you more breathless, so you eat less. Try having smaller meals more often. This can make eating and breathing easier;
  • you may not be absorbing enough nutrients from your food;
  • you may use more energy than usual, just to breathe.

Be sure to let your GP or the health professional monitoring your COPD know if you lose weight – around 3kg, that's about 7lb - over a short period.

Drink plenty of fluids - this helps reduce the amount of mucus and phlegm in your throat and lungs.

Take regular gentle exercise – this will not damage your lungs but help strengthen your heart and lungs. The fitter you are, the more you can do without feeling breathless. In fact reducing the amount of activity you do can make things worse, as your fitness level will fall.

Ask your GP or practice nurse how you can safely maintain your fitness and what activity and exercise are right for you. There may be a local programme you can join to show you how to exercise safely. 


The effectiveness of medications used to treat COPD varies from person to person, so if your symptoms don’t improve, there will be others you can try.
Ask your GP to explain the risks and benefits of different medications and any potential side effects.

You may need to adjust your medication or take different medication if you have attacks when your symptoms become worse. These are known as ‘exacerbations’. These are mentioned later.


If you suffer breathlessness, a medicine known as a bronchodilator is likely to be an important part of your treatment.  There are different types of bronchodilators: short-acting and long-acting. These medicines cause muscles in your airways to relax and open up. They are delivered using an inhaler, a device that delivers medication directly into your lungs.

There are different types of inhalers – short-acting and long-acting – and they can deliver different medication. You may be given a spacer to use with an inhaler. It can make it easier for the medication to reach your lungs.

It is very important to use your inhaler properly to get the full benefit of the medication. So ask the pharmacist or health professional monitoring your care to watch you use it, particularly if it doesn’t seem to be providing the anticipated benefit.

You may need to try different medications and use short and a long acting inhalers before you find a treatment that is right for you.

Other medication

Depending on your symptoms and how your condition progresses, there are other medications you may be prescribed. For example you may be prescribed medication to help if you cough up a lot of phlegm.

If your condition worsens, you may need extra oxygen on a temporary or permanent basis.


This term is used to describe occasions when your symptoms suddenly get much worse, often as a result of a chest infection. Your breathing may become more difficult; you may feel very breathless or start to cough up phlegm that’s a different colour than normal.

It is important to minimise the number of times you have exacerbations and for you know what you should do if you suspect one.

Your GP should discuss with you:
• how you can prevent them, which includes having an annual seasonal flu jab;
• what to look out for;
• what you can do yourself and
• when to contact the surgery for further guidance.

You should have a plan of what to do if your symptoms suddenly get worse.

Best treatment guidance

NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) has issued guidance on the management of COPD. This describes tests that lead to a diagnosis, treatment options, helping you to recognise if your condition is deteriorating and how to respond. A patient version of this guidance can be downloaded from their website. See the further information section.

Being more involved in managing your care
If you unserstand your condition better, you can work in partnership with health professionals to make decisions about and manage your own day-to-day care.

With the help of the health professional monitoring your care, or on your own, you can select helpful information from the COPD pages on the NHS Choices website, then print your personalised ‘information prescription’. NHS Choices users have their own COPD blog so you can share experiences and tips online too.

You may be offered a place on a pulmonary rehabilitation programme. These are available in many parts of the country, often arranged by your local hospital. Programmes vary but usually provide an opportunity to:

• learn more about how your lungs work and your medication;
• select and try out exercises that can help improve your fitness;
• learn breathing techniques to help you manage breathlessness and
• most importantly, pick up tips and learn from others who have COPD.

This programme can help you feel more in control, give you the confidence to manage your care on a day-to-day basis and ultimately mean you feel better and are able to do more.


We are grateful for the generous support of Sir Naim Dangoor CBE
and the Exilarch Foundation

Your Age Cymru

Set your location to see what Age Cymru offers in your local area.

Age Cymru Advice:
08000 223 444
Advice line:
08000 223 444

Like us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter

What does Age Cymru do in my area?

Donate today

Help support our work with older people

Donate now



A couple getting advice

About Age Cymru

Find out what Age Cymru does, its history, how it raises money and more about the charity.

Close window
Display options

Set the appearance of this website so you can read it more easily

Text size


To see information relating to England, Northern Ireland or Scotland set your preference below: