Intended for healthcare professionals

Practice ABC of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Definition, epidemiology, and risk factors

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 11 May 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:1142
  1. Graham Devereux, senior lecturer and honorary consultant
  1. Department of Environmental and Occupational Medicine, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen.


    In 2004, the UK National Institute for Clinical Excellence defined chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as “characterised by airflow obstruction. The airflow obstruction is usually progressive, not fully reversible and does not change markedly over several months. The disease is predominantly caused by smoking.” COPD is the preferred umbrella term for the airflow obstruction associated with the diseases of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. These are closely related to, but not synonymous with, COPD.

    View this table:

    Definitions of conditions associated with airflow obstruction

    Although asthma is associated with airflow obstruction, it is usually considered as a separate clinical entity. Some patients with chronic asthma also develop airflow obstruction that is relatively fixed (a consequence of airway remodelling) and often indistinguishable from COPD. Because of the high prevalence of asthma and COPD, these conditions coexist in many patients, creating diagnostic uncertainty. Other conditions also associated with poorly reversible airflow obstruction include cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, and obliterative bronchiolitis. Although these conditions need to be considered in the differential diagnosis of obstructive airways disease, they are not conventionally covered by the definition of COPD.

    Embedded Image

    Prevalence of diagnosed COPD in UK men and women during 1990-7



    Estimating and comparing the prevalence of COPD in different countries is complicated by differences in its precise definition and in the level of underdiagnosis. For example, in the United Kingdom mild COPD is defined as the ratio of forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) to the forced vital capacity (FVC) being < 0.7 and the FEV1 being 50-80% of the expected value. Other guidelines suggest slightly different spirometric values (see third article in this series).

    Embedded Image

    Prevalence of diagnosed COPD in UK men and women by age, during 1990-7

    A national UK study reported an abnormally low FEV1 in 10% of men and 11% of women aged 16-65 …

    View Full Text

    Log in

    Log in through your institution


    * For online subscription