Recognizing When Your Parent Has COPD

Knowing how to recognize when a loved one has a problem can be tricky and sometimes frustrating. When you don't know they have a problem, you’re obviously not on the lookout for symptoms or anything out of the ordinary. With this in mind, here is some guidance regarding recognizing when your parent has COPD.

By far, the biggest cause of COPD is smoking and, according to the American Lung Association, "approximately 85 to 90 percent of COPD deaths are caused by smoking." If your parent smokes or has smoked in the past, and is over 40 years of age, you should take a heightened interest in looking out for any changes that might indicate symptoms of COPD. But, what if they don't smoke?

There are other contributing factors that could put someone at a higher risk of developing COPD, including: 

  • exposure to air pollution
  • second-hand smoke
  • occupational dusts and chemicals
  • genetics
  • a history of childhood respiratory infections
  • socioeconomic status

If any of the factors above play a part in your parent's life, you should be on the alert. But, what symptoms do you look for? Some of the most typical symptoms of COPD include:

  • coughing that produces large amounts of mucus
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • chest tightness 

Let's take a closer look at these symptoms so you know how to distinguish when they may point to COPD.


Coughing can be a symptom of many things, from a cold to the flu to COPD. One of the characteristics of a cough of someone with COPD is it can produce large amounts of mucus. You might think this sounds like a cold or flu, but a big difference is a cold or the flu run their course and the cough goes away. With COPD, the cough is persistent and stays with the person unless it is treated. 


Wheezing is a very distinctive sound made when our airways narrow because of muscles around the airways going into a spasm. Most people think that wheezing sounds a bit like a whistling sound. There are many other conditions that could cause wheezing, but none of them should be taken lightly. So, if you notice a loved one wheezing, you need to take action.

Shortness Of Breath

Shortness of breath is another symptom that could be caused by a variety of conditions—but it is a tip off to the possibility of COPD. If your parent is getting winded in situations that don't seem like they should cause shortness of breath, then think twice about what it could mean. For example, if your father can walk three miles without any breathing problems and then gets short of breath walking up one small flight of stairs, that is unusual. If mom can take the family dog for an hour-long walk, but can't get from the checkout line to the car with one bag of groceries without getting short of breath, take notice. That is unusual shortness of breath.

Chest Tightness

A feeling of tightness in the chest can be one of the scariest things anyone might experience. Some people immediately think the worst and assume it's a heart attack. The feeling is different though—the tightness in the chest that someone with COPD experiences typically is not outright painful, as a heart attack is. It feels more like someone is squeezing your lungs so you can't get enough air in. It's more like your air is being cut off and is typically a feeling of pressure. 

It is also important to keep in mind that COPD is a progressive condition, meaning it worsens over time, so symptoms may appear gradually. This makes it even more important to be vigilant in your observations, as changes can sometimes appear subtle.

One of the things that may not seem obvious at first glance, that is quite typical in COPD sufferers is when symptoms only appear under certain circumstances. Someone with mild or moderate COPD may not exhibit any noticeable symptoms at all until they have to climb a flight of stairs or carry a bag of groceries. This is common, and don’t ignore these early warning signs.

If you do notice one or more of these symptoms, it may be time to have a candid conversation with your loved one. You should discuss what you have noticed and what you think they might consider doing about it. A first step might be to make an appointment to see their primary care physician to get a professional's assessment. The trained eye of a doctor may see things you didn't see, or may point out that what you thought might be COPD, might be something else. Either way, you will want to talk to your parent with a tone of concern and compassion. Understand that this may take them off guard and they may get defensive. Don't let this keep you from starting the conversation. Just go into it armed with the knowledge that you are helping them, and that it may entail more than one conversation. Be patient and listen to what they have to say. After all, you both have the same end in mind: their health.