6 Signs of COPD
A chronic cough could be more than just a slight irritation.
Could You Have COPD?
The American Lung Association (ALA) estimates that more than 12 million Americans have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and another 12 million likely have the condition but are unaware of it. Could you be one of them? It’s not always easy to tell. Some of the symptoms of COPD are similar to symptoms of other conditions. When symptoms first occur, many people ignore them, thinking they’re related to something less serious. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of COPD don’t appear until significant lung damage has occurred.
How Do I Determine If It's COPD?
If you’re a smoker or have frequent exposure to other irritants like second-hand smoke, air pollution, or workplace fumes, you’re at risk for developing COPD. Your doctor will give you tests—such as measuring your breathing volume or X-raying your chest—to determine if you have COPD. These tests can also help to rule out other conditions. Although only a doctor can diagnose COPD, there are certain warning signs that you can look out for at different stages of the disease.
Be Aware of the Signs
Many people with COPD develop most or all of a group of six symptoms identified by the American Thoracic Society (ATS). Symptom severity depends on how much lung damage has been done. Not everyone who has COPD shows these symptoms—and not everyone who has these symptoms has COPD. Talk to your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms.
Sign 1: Ongoing Cough
One of the first signs of COPD is a persistent cough that’s often worse in the morning. Coughing is a natural reaction of the airways to provide protection from inhaled irritants such as cigarette smoke, or to remove phlegm (mucus) from the breathing passages. Although the lungs are responding normally to irritation, a chronic cough is an indication that the lungs aren’t functioning normally. A cough of this type is often confused with a “smoker’s cough” because it’s productive, meaning it brings up mucus.
Sign 2: Increased Mucus
In COPD, coughing usually goes hand-in-hand with a second early-stage symptom: the production of a large amount of excess mucus or phlegm. Your lungs will produce additional mucus to trap or keep inhaled particles out. While it’s normal for your airways to produce several ounces of mucus per day to keep breathing passages moist, according to ATS, constant attacks by smoke and other irritants can lead to the production of up to three times the normal amount of mucus.
Sign 3: Shortness of Breath
According to American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) guidelines, coughing and mucus production are considered mild “stage 1” symptoms of COPD. However, shortness of breath is a more moderate or “stage 2” symptom. You’ll experience a feeling of breathlessness when your lungs sense that it takes more effort than usual to move air in and out. This can be caused by decreased blood oxygen levels. Initially, breathlessness may occur only with increased physical activity, but in later stages of the disease, it may appear with increasing frequency, even without exertion.
Sign 4: Wheezing
Another moderate symptom of COPD is wheezing, which might sound like a whistling, squeaking, or musical sound when you breathe and is accompanied by a feeling of tightness in your chest. Wheezing results from breathing through narrow, obstructed airways. Inflammation and irritation from years of smoking and can lead to excess mucus that obstructs airways and causes spasms that narrow them. Wheezing may also indicate that an infection has developed in your lungs.
Sign 5: Fatigue
Fatigue, or tiredness, is another common symptom in people with COPD. A loss of energy or stamina may often accompany other moderate COPD symptoms such as breathlessness and wheezing because of the exertion involved. This symptom alone isn’t dangerous. Although the fatigue associated with COPD may be very uncomfortable, it doesn’t actually cause damage to your lungs or other organs. Tiredness may be a symptom of many other conditions, so talk to your doctor to determine if your fatigue is a result of COPD.
Sign 6: Frequent Flare-ups
COPD symptoms usually worsen over time. More frequent flare-ups of COPD symptoms, such as shortness of breath and wheezing, indicate the severity of the condition and the level of lung damage that has been sustained. It’s important to address your symptoms with your doctor and begin treatment to manage your symptoms as soon as possible. Severe and worsening flare-ups that are left untreated can be fatal.
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COPD is a life-threatening illness that can’t be cured, but can be effectively treated. Early diagnosis and timely treatment are crucial to helping control symptoms. If you have any of these six signs, don’t delay—see your doctor.