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Every year thousands of people in Wales are diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties.

The main cause of the condition is smoking and, according to the NHS, quitting smoking is the best way for sufferers to relieve their symptoms and slow down the progression of the condition.

To  mark COPD Awareness Day we met Professor Keir Lewis, Professor of Respiratory Medicine, Swansea University and
Consultant at Hywel Dda Health Board to find out more about the condition, how it affects people’s lives and its link to smoking.

How prevalent is COPD in Wales?

We believe it affects around 2 to 5% of the population. Around 74,000 to 80,000 people have been diagnosed with COPD in Wales – that’s about the equivalent of a whole Millennium Stadium’s worth of people. Around 3,000 people are diagnosed with COPD every year in Wales. However, we think that in reality, there are probably twice as many people with COPD because double that number have not yet been diagnosed by a doctor which means there’s a huge unmet need. Across the UK we think there are around 35,000 deaths a year from COPD and in Wales it’s around 5,000 deaths a year.

What are the main causes of COPD?
Around 85 per cent of COPD cases are caused by smoking directly. Even if you’ve only just been diagnosed with COPD, stopping smoking is the only thing that will help relieve all four symptoms of COPD and help you to live longer. No drugs will help in the same way. There are other ways of developing COPD, such as certain occupations where the lungs are being exposed to damaging particles and gases. There may also be a genetic element with some people more prone to it and it can run in families. But all these together make up less than 15 per cent of the causes.

How does COPD affect people’s lives?
The impact of COPD on people’s health and quality of life is massively underestimated. Many people don’t realise that it can become like a long-term disability which affects carers, the family and people’s ability to work. It can go from being mild and just a cough now and again to being 24 hours a day on oxygen, sitting in a chair or bedbound. In many ways people’s quality of life and the anxiety and depression they suffer as a result is worse with COPD than with many other illnesses.

Is there enough awareness about the causes and symptoms of COPD?
Many people just dismiss their symptoms as a ‘smokers cough’. As a result, many of them never get diagnosed or not until the condition is in the very advanced stages. Others seem to accept the condition as being their fault and they don’t seek help. It’s a Cinderella disease that sufferers blame themselves for. It’s important however that help is sought in the early stages of the disease. The first three to five years are very important as this is when there is the fastest rate of lung decline.

What else do you think should be done to help prevent more people from developing COPD
‘Around 1 in 5 smokers will develop COPD. More needs to be done to raise awareness of COPD and the dangers of smoking. We are doing more research and developing newer treatments than ever before but prevention is better than cure. Raising the price of cigarettes is the most important way of reducing smoking prevalence at a population / public health level and we should put more pressure on our politicians to do this. COPD is almost entirely preventable and that’s the sad thing.’

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