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Saturday 3 June 2023 Dublin: 17°C
Shutterstock/Ruslan Guzov File photo of a man coughing.
500,000 people in Ireland have this condition, but half don't even realise
COPD, more commonly known as bronchitis or emphysema, is primarily caused by smoking.

ABOUT HALF A million people in Ireland are estimated to have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), but half of them likely do not know they have the condition.

More commonly known as bronchitis or emphysema, COPD is a chronic lung condition whose primary symptoms are breathlessness, persistent cough and regular chest infections.

There were more than 17,500 hospital admissions for COPD in 2017 and it is the most common cause of disease-specific emergency admission to hospital among adults in Ireland.

Professor JJ Gilmartin, Consultant Respiratory Physician and Chair of COPD Support Ireland, said the 500,000 figure is based on the 2011 Census and “likely to be an understatement, given that our population has gotten larger and older since then”.

Based on the most recent statistics available, Ireland has the highest hospitalisation rates for COPD of all the OECD countries.

COPD is primarily caused by smoking, but can also be the result of inhalation of dust or chemicals, or exposure to indoor or outdoor pollution, including fumes in the workplace, over an extended period of time.

Gilmartin said some people with an existing illness such as chronic asthma may be more prone to developing COPD, while others may be predisposed to it due to a hereditary lung condition known as Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.

“People over the age of 35, who are or have been smokers, who have symptoms or who have a family history of the disease, should ask their GP for a COPD health check.

“This is done through a very simple spirometry breathing test, which measures the amount of air and how fast a person can blow it out, following the taking of a deep breath,” he said. 

‘I was smoking for donkey’s years’

Nicky Coules, a former county councillor, was diagnosed with COPD in 2008. Over the years, he had suffered from regular chest infections and finally went to the doctor when they “became more difficult to handle”.

Like a lot of people who are diagnosed with the condition, Coules “had never heard of it before”. He had smoked for over 30 years, finally giving up in 2000 – several years before his diagnosis.

The 69-year-old former People Before Profit councillor was forced to give up his seat on South Dublin County Council in September 2017 due to the effect COPD had on his health.

“I was smoking for donkey’s years. When I was young, it’s hard to believe it, but smoking was fashionable. If the word ‘cool’ was around then we’d have used it. I finally stopped smoking when I was about 52. I was 16 or 17 when I started…

I knew smoking was harmful and I just wanted to get away from it.

Coules said giving up smoking was “oddly” not difficult, something helped by the fact his wife Bernie gave up cigarettes at the same time.

“We both just breezed through it, I thought, ‘My God, I should have done this years ago.’”

‘I was just going to get worse’ 

Coules was disappointed to give up his seat on the council but said he knew he had to focus on his health.

“I had a particularly bad year, I was in hospital on two occasions and just wasn’t able to do the work … If I didn’t quit I was just going to get worse.”

Coules has lost five-and-a-half stone in the last year, a health process he started by undergoing a pulmonary rehabilitation course in Tallaght Hospital.

He said he’s been able to keep his fitness levels up thanks to his involvement with the Tallaght COPD support group. Members do an exercise class with a professional fitness instructor once a week.

Coules advised anyone in his situation to get involved with a support group and remain as active as possible. He said having COPD can lead to people restricting their movements, which is “kind of counter-intuitive”.

When you’re feeling unwell you’re less likely to move around but, because you’re like that, you need to move around.

He said his support group also has an important social element and “a good bit of laughter and joking” – something that can help people cope with the mental impact of living with the condition.

COPD Support Ireland, the umbrella body for 20 local COPD support groups, has issued the following advice for people living with COPD:

  • Give up smoking
  • Do breathing exercises and chest clearance techniques to help get rid of phlegm
  • Get active: You may feel that exercise will make you even more breathless, however, the less exercise you do, the less you are able to do
  • Eat well: Try to have a balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight; eat little and often rather than having big meals
  • Know your medications: Talk with your health professional about your medications and how they work; make sure you are using the correct inhaler technique 
  • Avoid flare-ups: Keep away from smoky environments, pollutants like dusts, smog or foggy weather, and try to minimise your risk of colds and flus, including making sure to get the flu jab every year
  • Look after your mind: Living with a long-term illness is not easy and can give rise to feeling low or anxious

COPD Support Ireland is due to hold a national patient conference for people with COPD on Thursday, 15 November.

Let’s Get Moving on COPD will take place in the Royal College of Physicians on Kildare Street, Dublin 2, and will focus on improving self-care for people with COPD as well as offer contributions from leading experts on the future of COPD treatment.

The conference is open to people with COPD, their family members and carers, and is free of charge but registration is necessary. More information can be read here.

World COPD Day takes place on 21 November.

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