Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that leads to obstructed airflow. It typically develops slowly, but it is progressive, meaning symptoms worsen overtime. It can cause coughing and difficulty breathing.
COPD is a blanket term that includes several different conditions. The most common conditions are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Many people with COPD have both of these conditions.
COPD most often affects older adults and is not contagious. It can increasingly restrict daily activities, and is the currently the third leading cause of death in the United States.
The most common symptom of COPD is shortness of breath. Those who have chronic bronchitis will likely have a cough and sputum production for several months out of the year.
Other common symptoms that could indicate early stages of COPD include:
- chest tightness
- swelling in the feet or ankles
- frequent respiratory infections
Many people in the early stages of COPD may have few to no symptoms. People commonly start to develop symptoms once there has been significant damage to the lungs.
There are four different stages of COPD that range from mild (stage 1), to very severe (stage 4). Different symptoms accompany each stage. Each progressive stage results in more airway restrictions and limitations.
Within each of these stages, people may experience periods where their symptoms are noticeably worse. These periods are known as exacerbations, and typically last a few days.
People with stage 1 COPD, or mild COPD, will likely experience some airflow restriction. But it may not immediately be noticeable. In this stage, people will likely experience a persistent cough with sputum.
Sputum is a mixture of saliva and mucus that forms in the respiratory tract. And a cough may begin to interrupt sleep.
Some people won’t have any noticeable symptoms at all.
The lung damage that is happening depends on the specific type of COPD you have. The airways of the lungs could become inflamed and start narrowing if you have bronchitis. Fragile airway walls will break down if you have emphysema.
In stage 1, the lungs are still functioning at least 80 percent of their normal capacity.
Stage 2 COPD is also called moderate COPD. In this stage, the airflow restriction becomes more apparent. This is often when people may notice they have more difficulty breathing, or experience shortness of breath.
Coughing and sputum production may increase. Some people also experience more chest tightness and wheezing. And many people experience more intense shortness of breath during physical activity.
Reaching stage 2 COPD is when many people first make a doctor’s appointment. At this point there is more concern about symptoms.
In moderate COPD, lung function has dropped to 50 to 79 percent of normal functioning capacity.
Stage 3 COPD is also called severe COPD. At this stage, many people become more fatigued and have more prominent breathing problems. Sputum continues to be produced by airways that are even more narrow or damaged.
Respiratory infections may become more frequent and harder to get rid of. Viruses, bacteria, and other irritants can all cause infections that can become dangerous. Some people may also start to experience swelling in their ankles, feet, or legs.
At this stage, the lungs are functioning at 30 to 49 percent of normal capacity.
Stage 4 COPD is also referred to as very severe. People with stage 4 COPD have more debilitating breathing problems, even when resting.
Many people with very severe COPD may experience heart complications from the limited oxygen supply.
Some people may gain weight due to the struggle to keep up any physical activity. And others may lose weight from the body’s effort to burn extra energy to attain the oxygen it needs.
Many people will experience headaches every morning from the buildup of carbon dioxide. The swelling of the feet or legs may also become more prominent.
Flare-ups of severe COPD can be deadly. Some symptoms and exacerbations will require emergency medical attention. These symptoms include blue fingernails or lips, or difficulty speaking. Surgical treatments may be considered, and some patients may require oxygen therapy.
In severe COPD, the lungs are functioning at less than 30 percent of normal capacity.
COPD may not be avoidable for everyone, especially in cases where genetics is a factor. But the most effective way to prevent COPD from developing is to not smoke.
Smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Avoiding exposure to airway pollutants can also help prevent COPD. Pollutants include:
- second hand smoke
Once a person has developed COPD, there are still steps they can take to slow the progression of the disease. These steps include:
- stop smoking
- avoid irritants like chemical fumes or dust
- get the flu vaccine and the pneumonia vaccine
- follow treatments from your respiratory therapist
- learn breathing techniques to breath more efficiently
- exercise regularly within your capabilities
- eat a healthy, well-balanced diet
COPD is a serious condition that can significantly impact quality of life. If you start to develop symptoms of COPD, see your doctor as soon as possible.
Early detection means early treatment, which can slow the progression of the disease. Similarly, consult your doctor if you already have COPD and are experiencing worsening symptoms.