Working definition of COPD

Working definition of COPD

COPD is characterised by airflow obstruction that is not fully reversible. The airflow obstruction does not change markedly over several months and is usually progressive in the long term. COPD is predominantly caused by smoking. Other factors, particularly occupational exposures, may also contribute to the development of COPD. Exacerbations often occur, where there is a rapid and sustained worsening of symptoms beyond normal day-to-day variations.

The following should be used as a definition of COPD:

  • Airflow obstruction is defined as a reduced FEV1/FVC ratio (where FEV1 is forced expired volume in 1 second and FVC is forced vital capacity), such that FEV1/FVC is less than 0.7.

  • If FEV1 is ≥ 80% predicted normal a diagnosis of COPD should only be made in the presence of respiratory symptoms, for example breathlessness or cough.

The airflow obstruction is present because of a combination of airway and parenchymal damage. The damage is the result of chronic inflammation that differs from that seen in asthma and which is usually the result of tobacco smoke. Significant airflow obstruction may be present before the person is aware of it.

COPD produces symptoms, disability and impaired quality of life which may respond to pharmacological and other therapies that have limited or no impact on the airflow obstruction.

COPD is now the preferred term for the conditions in patients with airflow obstruction who were previously diagnosed as having chronic bronchitis or emphysema.

There is no single diagnostic test for COPD. Making a diagnosis relies on clinical judgement based on a combination of history, physical examination and confirmation of the presence of airflow obstruction using spirometry.

  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)