COPD Signs and Symptoms

Could It Be COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) is a chronic lung disease that makes it harder to breathe. This disease is the third leading cause of death in America, affecting millions of people. Two conditions of COPD that are more commonly known are Emphysema and Chronic Bronchitis.

COPD Signs and Symptoms

The main risk factor for COPD is long-term exposure to lung irritants such as smoking or second-hand smoke, air pollution and chemical fumes. The signs and symptoms of COPD are not always noticeable until the later stages of the disease, when the lungs have taken a significant amount of damage, but there are early signs. People often mistakenly dismiss the early warning signs to age, being out of shape, unhealthy lifestyles or “smoker’s cough.” They may change their level of activity to accommodate their symptoms without realizing it. There are also instances when COPD is hard to diagnose due to asthma. Asthma causes similar symptoms to COPD making it harder for doctors to differentiate the symptoms to diagnose correctly.

COPD is a progressive disease, meaning symptoms may be mild at first and become more severe over time. If your symptoms are mild, you may not notice them, or you may adjust your lifestyle to make breathing easier. For example, you may take the elevator instead of the stairs. Signs and symptoms of COPD vary per person and often don’t appear until significant lung damage has occurred. Symptoms may be more apparent if smoking exposure continues. The signs and symptoms include but are not limited to:

  • Dyspnea or Shortness of breath – when you breathe harder, more shallow breaths and feel like you’re running out of air
  • Persistent or chronic cough (often referred to as “smoker’s cough”)
  • Increase in mucus production
  • Coughing up sputum (mucus)
  • Difficulty breathing while resting
  • Decrease in ability to breathe during physical activity
  • Wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe)
  • Chest tightness
  • Higher frequency of respiratory infections such as pneumonia, colds or the flu
  • Chronic bronchitis – daily cough and sputum production at least three months a year for two consecutive years.
  • Having to clear your throat first thing in the morning, due to excess mucus in your lungs

Other signs and symptoms that could be associated with COPD:

  • Fatigue/tiredness
  • Morning headaches due to decrease of oxygen exchange during sleep
  • Lack of energy
  • Lower muscle endurance
  • Unintended weight loss (in later stages)
  • Changes to everyday activities to accommodate symptoms
  • Severe COPD can cause swelling in your ankles, feet or legs

Be sure to talk with your healthcare provider if you are experiencing any of the COPD symptoms listed above.

At times, any or all of the respiratory related symptoms may suddenly “flare up” or get worse than usual, during which their symptoms become worse than usual day-to-day variation and persist for at least several days. These episodes of more severe symptoms are known as exacerbations, and they should be taken seriously. The symptoms of exacerbations may include:

  • Coughing up more mucus than usual
  • Change in the color or thickness of mucus
  • Shortness of breath occurring more than usual
  • Greater tightness in your chest

Some severe symptoms may require treatment in a hospital. You should seek emergency care if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Hard time catching your breath or talking.
  • Cyanosis – your lips or fingernails turn blue or gray, a sign of low oxygen in the blood.
  • Decrease in mental alertness
  • Increase in heart rate
  • Your recommended treatment is not working

Don’t wait for symptoms to become severe to seek help, valuable treatment time could be lost. Early detection of COPD is key to successful treatment.