Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a long-term lung disease. It’s comprised of two diseases: emphysema and chronic bronchitis. A long-term cough is often the telltale sign of COPD, but there are other symptoms that can occur as lung damage progresses with the condition. Many of these symptoms can also be slow to develop, with more advanced symptoms appearing when significant damage has occurred. Symptoms can also be episodic and vary in intensity. If you have COPD, or are wondering if you have the disease, learn about the symptoms and signs, so that you can have a discussion with your doctor.
Cough is the first sign of COPD. According to the Mayo Clinic, COPD is diagnosed if your cough is persistent for three months (or longer) out of a year for at least two years. The cough may persist every day, even if there are no other symptoms of illness, such as a cold or the flu.
A cough is how the body removes mucus from the airways and the lungs and clears them of other irritants (such as dust or pollen) and secretions. Usually the mucus people cough up is clear, but it’s often a yellow color in people with COPD. The cough is usually worse early in the morning, and you may cough more when you exercise or smoke.
As COPD progresses, you might experience other symptoms aside from cough. These may be experienced in the early to mid-stages of the disease.
When air is forced through narrow or obstructed air passages in the lungs when you exhale, you may hear a whistling or musical sound. This is called wheezing, and in people with COPD, it is most often caused by excess mucus obstructing the airways in conjunction with muscular tightening that further narrows the airways. Wheezing may also be a symptom of asthma and pneumonia.
Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)
As the airways in your lungs become swollen (inflamed) and damaged and begin to constrict, you might find it difficult to breathe or catch your breath. This COPD symptom is most noticeable during increased physical activity, but it can make even the most routine daily tasks, such as walking, doing simple household chores, dressing, or bathing, more difficult. At its worst, it can even occur during rest.
You often cannot get enough oxygen to your blood and to your muscles if you have difficulty breathing. Your body slows down and fatigue sets in without the necessary oxygen. You may also feel fatigued because your lungs are working extra hard to get the oxygen in and the carbon dioxide out, draining your energy.
Frequent Respiratory Infections
Because people with COPD have greater difficulty clearing their lungs of bacteria and viruses, pollutants, dust, and other irritants, they can be at greater risk for lung infections such as colds, flus, and pneumonias. It can be hard to avoid infections altogether, but practicing good hygiene and getting the proper vaccinations can reduce your risk.
Many COPD symptoms are experienced in the earliest stages. As the disease progresses, however, you might notice some additional symptoms. This can happen suddenly without warning. Furthermore, you may experience exacerbations, which the Mayo Clinic defines as episodes of worsening symptoms that last for several days. Call your doctor right away if you start experiencing the following advanced symptoms:
Headaches and Fever
Morning headaches can occur due to higher levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. You may also experience a fever.
Swollen Feet and Ankles
As the lungs become more damaged throughout the course of the disease, you may experience swelling in your feet and ankles. This occurs because your heart has to work harder to pump blood to the damaged lungs, and this, in turn, can lead to congestive heart failure.
Though the link is not fully understood, COPD can increase your risk for heart-related problems. High blood pressure (hypertension) is one of these symptoms. Advanced stages may also increase your risk for heart attacks and strokes.
You may notice that you've been losing weight if you've had COPD for a long time. The extra energy your body requires to breathe and get enough air in and out of the lungs may be burning more calories than your body is taking in, causing you to lose weight.
COPD causes irreversible damage to your lungs. Still, COPD symptoms and further damage can be controlled with proper treatment. Symptoms that don’t improve, as well as more advanced signs of the disease, likely indicate that the treatment isn’t working. Contact your doctor right away if you don’t notice symptomatic improvement with your medications or oxygen therapy. Early intervention is the best way to ease your symptoms and extend longevity if you are struggling with COPD.