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Respiratory glossary: Key asthma and COPD terms to know


Respiratory glossary: Key asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) terms to know

Within respiratory there are a wide range of words, phrases and acronyms to learn. Here, we’ve collated some of the most widely used terms, their definitions, and links to other places on Together in Respiratory to explore the topic in more detail. We hope you find this useful!


Adherence within healthcare means the extent to which a patient’s behaviour corresponds with the prescribed medication dosing regime, for example including time, dosing and interval of medication intake.[1]


Assessment of a patient is a form of a dialogue between a patient and a healthcare professional, in which they discuss the needs of the former to promote their wellbeing.[2] In this article, Jane Scullion explores the key steps of a comprehensive respiratory assessment.


Bronchodilators are a type of medication that make breathing easier by relaxing the muscles in the lungs and widening the airways (bronchi).[3]They are commonly prescribed in the treatment of asthma and COPD.


Corticosteroids, often known as steroids, are an anti-inflammatory medicine.[4]  Corticosteroids are mainly used to reduce inflammation and suppress the immune system.[4]

Need a respiratory refresher? Take our free eLearning modules covering an introduction to asthma and COPD, plus modules on diagnosis and challenges in respiratory care. Receive a certificate upon completion for your records. Start learning.

Digital consultations

Digital consultations, sometimes referred to as virtual consultations or online consultations, are consultations conducted by telephone, video, email, or via online e-consultation systems, which can facilitate quick and convenient access to care by patients.[5] In this article, Sarah Rust considers how to get digital consultations right.


Dyspnoea, also known as breathlessness, is a highly subjective, uncomfortable or distressing sensation that occurs when actual ventilation is perceived not to satisfy demand.[6] Dyspnoea can be a debilitating symptom that affects quality of life, exercise tolerance and mortality in COPD patients.[7] 


In COPD, an exacerbation (or flare up) is a sustained worsening of a person’s symptoms from their usual stable state and can be caused by a range of factors including increased cough, breathlessness or sputum production.[8] Read more about COPD exacerbations and reducing their risk in this article.

FeNO testing

Fractional Exhaled Nitric Oxide (FeNO) devices are a novel medical technology used to aid in the diagnosis of asthma.[9] FeNO devices measure fractional exhaled nitric oxide in the breath of patients and are a key part of diagnosis.[9,10] Learn more about asthma diagnosis in this free eLearning module.


Forced Expiratory Volume (FEV) is the volume of air breathed out in one second (1), measured in litres.[11] A post bronchodilator FEV1 /FVC less than 0.7 confirms persistent airflow obstruction and is used as part of the diagnosis of COPD.[12]


See Exacerbation.


Global Initiative for Asthma (GINA) is a body that produces the annual Global Strategy for Asthma Management and Prevention.[13]


Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) is a body that produces the annual Global Strategy for Prevention, Diagnosis and Management of COPD.[14]

Integrated respiratory care

Integrated respiratory care is patient-centred, proactive and coordinated care delivered through a multidisciplinary team. It involves rethinking traditional boundaries and roles, and requires respiratory specialists in the management of conditions through collaborative care.[15] In this article, Dr Anna Murphy reflects on the role of pharmacists in integrated respiratory care.


A nebuliser allows a patient to inhale medication through a facemask or mouthpiece, by changing liquid medicine into a fine mist. You then breathe this mist in through a facemask or mouthpiece.[16]

Oxygen therapy

Oxygen therapy involves a patient breathing in air that contains more oxygen than normal through a mask or tube connected to a device, usually at home.[17] In this article, Anne Marie Marley outlines what to consider when prescribing oxygen therapy.

Palliative care

Palliative care describes an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families who are facing problems associated with life-limiting illness, usually progressive.[18] Towards the end of life, people with long-term lung conditions may need extra support with symptoms such as breathlessness, coughing and exacerbations.[19] In this podcast’s episode, Fiona Murphy discusses her experiences working with patients and families at end of life.

Peak flow test

A peak flow test is a lung function test used for diagnosing asthma.[10] A peak flow test measures how fast a patient is able to breathe out, and can indicate whether the airways are narrowed.[20]

Pulmonary rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation is an exercise and education programme designed for respiratory patients who experience symptoms of breathlessness.[21]

Reflective practice

Reflective practice is how healthcare professionals can assess their professional experiences – both positive and where improvements may be needed – recording and documenting insight to aid their learning and identify opportunities to improve.[22] You can use your profile on Together in Respiratory to aid your reflective practice. Or if you need some top tips on how to get your thoughts down on paper, Jane Scullion puts reflective practice into perspective.

Respiratory rate

Respiratory rate is the numbers of breaths taken within a set amount of time (typically 60 seconds), measured by counting the number of times the chest rises.[23]

Respiratory Support Unit

A Respiratory Support Unit (RSU) is an area of enhanced care designed for a higher level of monitoring and respiratory intervention than would be expected for a routine ward environment.[24]

Sleep apnoea

Sleep apnoea is a condition in which a person’s breathing stops and starts while they sleep. The most common type is called obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA).[25]   Read about how OSA is diagnosed in this article.

Smoking cessation

Smoking cessation describes activities that aim to support people who smoke to stop smoking.[26] In COPD, smoking cessation has been shown to be more effective than all known pharmacological treatments for COPD and can also reduce the severity of COPD symptoms.[27]


Spirometry is a test of lung function, designed to help diagnose and monitor lung conditions by measuring how much air a patient can breathe out in one forced breath.[28] Spirometry is covered in this eLearning module on the diagnosis of asthma.


Sputum is (coughed up and spat out) salivary matter mixed with mucus or pus from the respiratory tract.[29] Sputum helps to diagnose, confirm infection and offer correct treatment to respiratory patients.[30]


An asthma trigger is anything that irritates a patient’s airways and sets off asthma symptoms.[31] Triggers can include changes in temperature, food and alcohol.[32]

Total lung capacity

Also known as TLC, total lung capacity is the volume of air in the lungs upon the maximum effort of inspiration.[33] In healthy adults, the average lung capacity is about six litres.[33]

Having a good understanding of the key terms phrases and acronyms in respiratory is important, especially when looking to develop outside of therapy area knowledge. Develop yourself on Together in Respiratory and explore more articles covering a range of topics across respiratory.

[1] Gast A, Mathes, T. Medication adherence influencing factors—an (updated) overview of systematic reviews. Syst Rev. 2019; 8(1): 112

[2] Ajibade B. Assessing the patient’s needs and planning effective care. Br J Nurs. 2021; 30(20): 1166-1171

[3] NHS. Bronchodilators. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/bronchodilators/

[4] NHS Inform. Corticosteroids. Available at: https://www.nhsinform.scot/tests-and-treatments/medicines-and-medical-aids/types-of-medicine/corticosteroids

[5] Salisbury C, Murphy M, Duncan P. The Impact of Digital-First Consultations on Workload in General Practice: Modeling Study. J Med Internet Res. 2020; 22(6): e18203

[6] NICE. Clinical Knowledge Summary. Breathlessness: What is it? Available at: https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/breathlessness/background-information/definition/

[7] Laviolette, L and Lorentzian, P. Dyspnoea: a multidimensional and multidisciplinary approach. European Respiratory J. 2014; (43): 1750-1762

[8] NICE. Clinical Knowledge Summary. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: Diagnosis. Available at: https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-disease/diagnosis/diagnosis-copd/

[9] NHS England. Fractional Exhaled Nitric Oxide (FeNO). Available at: https://www.england.nhs.uk/aac/what-we-do/innovation-for-healthcare-inequalities-programme/rapid-uptake-products/fractional-exhaled-nitric-oxide/

[10] NICE. Asthma: diagnosis, monitoring and chronic asthma management: Recommendations. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng80/chapter/Recommendations

[11] Asthma + Lung UK. Breathing Lung Function Tests. Available at: https://www.asthmaandlung.org.uk/conditions/breathing-lung-function-tests/spirometry-bronchodilator-responsiveness-testing

[12] NICE. Clinical Knowledge Summary. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: Diagnosis. Available at: https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-disease/diagnosis/diagnosis-copd/

[13] Global Initiative for Asthma. 2023 GINA Report, Global Strategy for Asthma Management and Prevention. Available at: https://ginasthma.org/2023-gina-main-report/

[14] Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. 2023 GOLD report. Available at: https://goldcopd.org/2023-gold-report-2/

[15] Patel, I. Integrated respiratory care. Clinics in Integrated Care. 2021; (6): 100053

[16] Asthma + Lung UK. Nebulisers. Available at: https://www.asthmaandlung.org.uk/symptoms-tests-treatments/treatments/nebulisers

[17] NHS. Home oxygen treatment. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/home-oxygen-treatment/

[18] NHS England. Palliative and end of life care. Available at: https://www.england.nhs.uk/eolc/

[19] Marie Curie. Respiratory diseases. Available at: https://www.mariecurie.org.uk/professionals/palliative-care-knowledge-zone/condition-specific-short-guides/respiratory-diseases

[20] NHS. Peak flow test. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/peak-flow-test/

[21] NHS England. Pulmonary rehabilitation. Available at: https://www.england.nhs.uk/ourwork/clinical-policy/respiratory-disease/pulmonary-rehabilitation/

[22] Nursing and Midwifery Council. Regulators unit to support reflective practice across health and care. Available at: https://www.nmc.org.uk/news/press-releases/joint-statement-reflective-practice/

[23] NHS Data Dictionary. Respiratory Rate. Available at: https://www.datadictionary.nhs.uk/nhs_business_definitions/respiratory_rate.html

[24] British Thoracic Society. Respiratory Support Units. Available at: https://www.brit-thoracic.org.uk/delivery-of-care/respiratory-support-units/

[25] NHS. Sleep apnoea. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sleep-apnoea/

[26] NICE. Clinical Knowledge Summary. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: How should I diagnose an acute exacerbation of COPD? Available at: https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-disease/diagnosis/diagnosis-acute-exacerbation/

[27] Action on smoking and health. Smoking and respiratory disease. Available at: https://ash.org.uk/resources/view/smoking-and-respiratory-disease

[28] NHS. Spirometry. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/spirometry/

[29] Physiopedia. Sputum. Available at: https://www.physio-pedia.com/Sputum

[30] Testing. Sputum Culture Bacterial.  Available at: https://www.testing.com/tests/sputum-culture-bacterial/

[31] Asthma + Lung UK. Asthma triggers. Available at: https://www.asthmaandlung.org.uk/conditions/asthma/asthma-triggers

[32] The Independent Pharmacy. Asthma Trigger Hotspots: What Triggers Asthma? Available at: https://www.theindependentpharmacy.co.uk/asthma/guides/asthma-triggers-heat-map

[33] National Library of Medicine. Physiology, Lung Capacity. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541029/#

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