Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD for short, is the term for a number of ongoing (chronic) lung conditions that tend to deteriorate, or get worse over time.  The most common of these conditions are emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic asthma.

When someone has COPD , their lungs progressively lose heir their ability to absorb oxygen and/or rid the body of carbon dioxide. Smoking is the main cause of COPD .

People with COPD to struggle with their breathing when they exercise, produce a lot of sputum (fluid that needs to be coughed up from the lungs), and have trouble dealing with infections, which can cause deterioration of their condition.

What does the respiratory system do?

The lungs are part of the body’s respiratory system. This is the system that provides oxygen to the body, and removes the waste gas carbon dioxide.

Read more about how the respiratory system works.

What happens when someone with COPD goes into Intensive Care?

If someone with COPD needs to go into an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) because of a deterioration of their condition (an exacerbation), the medical team will try to find the cause of the exacerbation and provide any necessary treatment.

As well as making sure the person with COPD gets good nutrition and lots of physiotherapy, the team may do some investigations such as a chest x-ray and blood tests. Medications such as ventolin (salbutamol) or steroids may also be given.

If breathing assistance is needed, this will be given via a mask (BiPAP) or, in some extreme cases, using an endotracheal tube (breathing tube) and ventilator (breathing machine). (See Breathing support page for more detail.) The patient will be closely monitored using an oxygen saturation monitor, bedside monitor and occasionally an arterial line. (See Equipment.)

If the cause of the exacerbation is straightforward and easily treated, the person being treated will probably stay in ICU for several days. However, in severe cases where the COPD is well advanced, recovery may not be possible.

Useful links

Publication details

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), version 1.1. Julia Greaves CNS.


The information on this page is general in nature and cannot reflect individual patient variation. It reflects Australian intensive care practice, which may differ from that in other countries. It is intended as a supplement to the more specific information provided by the doctors and nurses caring for your loved one. ICNSW attests to the accuracy of the information contained here but takes no responsibility for how it may apply to an individual patient. Please refer to the full disclaimer.