Understanding COPD

By Yeo Li Shian

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease characterised by chronic coughing, coughing out mucus, breathlessness and chest tightness. Smoking has been listed as the main cause of COPD.

Cigarette smoke changes the cells at the lungs and airways, causing it to swell and be inflamed. It takes a few years for the disease to manifest.


As a multi-component disease with inflammation at its core, COPD affects over 210 million people worldwide. World Health Organisation (WHO) reveals that the total mortality rate from COPD is expected to increase by over 30% in the next decade, unless proactive measures are taken to address the risk factors.

By 2020, this preventable and treatable illness is projected to be the third leading cause of death. In the United States of America, over 12 million of people or 7% of the adult population suffer from COPD.

Professor Dr. Roslina Manap, President of Malaysia Thoracic Society and Head of Respiratory Unit in UKM Medical Centre, points out that COPD is not exclusively a disease of the elderly. Like any other diseases, it can be a real threat to one’s health and quality of life as about half of the patients are younger than 65 years old and are at the peak of their careers.

Although the disease was once common among men, current research suggests that women and men are at equal risk of developing COPD. Increased tobacco consumption among women and higher risk of exposure to indoor air pollution such as solid fuel used for cooking and heating are believed to be culprits.


The most common symptoms are breathlessness, chest tightness and abnormal mixture of saliva and mucus in the airways.

“As the condition worsens, even simple daily activities like climbing a short flight of stairs can become very difficult. Compared to non-smokers, COPD patients have low levels of oxygen but high levels of carbon dioxide in their lungs,” Prof Roslina explains at the recent launch of a new indacaterol, Onbrez Breezhaler, in Kuala Lumpur.


Diagnosis is easily done via a simple breathing test known as spirometry which determines the amount of air being inhaled and exhaled, as well as the pace of the air that being is breathed out.

Treatment is via the use of a bronchodilator, which opens up airways with specific medications. Onbrez Breezhaler, a newly launched bronchodilator offers a unique combination of fast and long-acting properties to allow COPD patients a better quality of life.

“As the only once-daily bronchodilator, it is easy to use, convenient and highly effective in easing airflow obstruction,” says Dr. Kai-Michael Beeh, Medical Director of Insaf Respiratory Research Institute, Germany. “It is not a preventive drug but it improves breathlessness and lung function to help patients ensure a better control over their condition.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Roslina stresses that COPD patients can help themselves by making lifestyle changes. “The only preventive measure is to stop smoking. It’s that simple,” she says.

Real Life Story: “I smoked my health away”

66-year-old Lau Swe Teng, a Morib-born businessman and father of two, started smoking at the age of six. Starting with hand-rolled tobacco leaves, he progressed to five cigarettes a day at the age of 12.

Mr. Lau

“By the time I reached 20, smoking had become part of my life. I puffed two to three packs of cigarettes daily,” he shares.

His bad habit caught up with him when he started experiencing acute breathlessness and chest tightness in 2001. The attacks were so severe he was hospitalized several times.

He was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Over the years, Lau spent his entire life savings and insurance plans on medical treatments to save his life.

The repentant father has stopped smoking for more than a year now and now practices a healthier lifestyle with light exercises and a healthy diet. “I lost count of how much I spent on treatment. I destroyed my own lungs and now, I have to avoid heavy physical activities to prevent breathless attacks.”

“If you don’t smoke, don’t even start. If you are already a smoker, it’s never too late to stop now,” adds Lau who now relies on various medicine and inhaler to control his COPD.

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