COPD is a complex condition that is the result of chronic airway inflammation and progressive structural changes from prolonged exposure to irritants. The most common irritant is tobacco smoke.
People with this condition have damage to the airways and the air sacs inside their lungs. This damage makes it harder for people with COPD to breathe, making them feel short of breath.
COPD produces many outward symptoms, which slowly get worse over time. According to the American Lung Association, COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States.
More than 11 million Americans have been diagnosed with the disease, and another estimated 24 million Americans have the disease but have not been diagnosed.
COPD leads to a number of long-term symptoms that may result in an early death.
A cough is one of the most obvious symptoms of COPD. When you have COPD, your lungs produce more thick mucus than usual. This clogs the lungs and makes it harder to breathe. Coughing is your body’s way to rid itself of that extra mucus.
Mucus can be yellow, greenish, white, or clear. People with COPD tend to get sick with upper respiratory tract infections more easily and take longer to recover.
If you have any of the following symptoms, see your doctor:
- shortness of breath
- yellow or green sputum production
- fever or chills
When you have COPD, the airways that allow oxygen to flow to your lungs are often more narrow than normal. As the air struggles to get through these thinner passageways, it causes the airway walls to vibrate.
The vibration produces a whistling sound known as wheezing. It’s the same sound that people with asthma sometimes make when they have difficulty breathing. Bronchodilator and steroid medicines can open up your airways to improve breathing and relieve your wheezing.
Wheezing is a serious symptom that requires medical attention especially with symptoms that include:
- yellow or greenish sputum production
- fever or chills
- a worsening cough
- shortness of breath
COPD can also turn your lips and nails a bluish color. This color change is a symptom that you don’t have enough oxygen in your blood.
Your blood is red. When it’s deprived of oxygen, blood turns a darker shade of red. This darker red blood can give your lips and fingernails a blue hue because of how light travels through the skin.
A bluish discoloration of the skin is also called cyanosis. It’s a very serious symptom that warrants an immediate call for emergency medical care.
Swelling in your legs or feet is another serious symptom. To make up for the damage to your lungs, your heart has to pump harder to get enough oxygen to the rest of your body.
Over time, your heart muscle can become damaged and enlarged from the extra work. Lower body swelling could mean you’ve developed a form of heart failure.
In short, COPD often leads to other serious long-term conditions and disabilities.
After you’ve had COPD awhile, you may develop a bulging in your chest. The chest takes on a barrel-like appearance called a “barrel chest.”
A barrel chest forms because your lungs are chronically overfilled with air and can’t deflate normally. This causes your rib cage to be partially expanded at all times.
A barrel chest can worsen existing breathing problems from COPD, making it even harder for you to catch your breath. You may get short of breath easily doing even the simplest of activities.
When your lungs don’t work as well as they should, your body has to work harder to breathe. This can cause you to burn up to 10 times more calories than usual.
COPD and its symptoms of shortness of breath and a chronic cough can lead to a decreased appetite, eventual weight loss, and even cachexia.
Cachexia is a wasting of the body that causes symptoms that include:
- muscle atrophy
- severe weight loss
When you have trouble breathing, even the simplest daily activities become challenges. Although there isn’t a cure for COPD, treatments can help you breathe easier and relieve symptoms that interfere with your life.
Your doctor will probably recommend that you do the following:
- eat a nutritious diet
- exercise regularly
- take medicines to open up your airways
- quit smoking before your lungs become even more damaged