Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) happens when you’ve had long-term exposure to certain irritants. These irritants eventually damage your lungs and airways and make it increasingly difficult to breathe.

Most of the time, COPD is caused by cigarette smoke, but environmental air pollution and exposure to chemicals on the job can also cause the disease. In parts of the world where there’s limited electricity, inhaling smoke in indoor kitchens can lead to COPD.

COPD is the third-most common cause of death worldwide. The disease is considered preventable and treatable, but there’s no cure.

If you have stage 3 COPD, you may have more severe symptoms than you did before. At this stage, your doctor may adjust or change your treatment to make it easier for you to go about your life as usual.

Read on to learn what stage 3 COPD is, what symptoms to expect, how it’s treated, and more.

Stage 3 COPD is a severe restriction in the amount of air flowing in and out of your airways. At this stage, it is very likely that your daily activities are being affected by your difficulty in breathing. You may even have been hospitalized one or more times to treat your condition.

That’s what stage 3 COPD means in terms of your symptoms. What stage 3 COPD means from a your doctor’s perspective is a little different.

Doctors and researchers often use a system developed by the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) to help describe where someone is on a scale that measures how restricted their airflow has become.

The GOLD system involves four stages based on the results of a breathing test called spirometry. Spirometry measures the amount of air your lungs can expel when you breathe out (forced expiratory volume, or FEV).

The four-stage system looks like this:

GOLD stageCOPD levelFEV score
1mild80% or more normal
2moderate50-79% normal
3severe30-49% normal
4very severe< 3% normal

The GOLD system has been expanded in recent years, mostly because it doesn’t tell you much about what people are experiencing day to day. People with the same spirometry readings may be functioning very differently.

For that reason, some doctors also use a four-lettered grading system that takes into consideration the severity of your symptoms. The revised GOLD system also estimates how likely it is that you could have an episode where your symptoms suddenly get much worse, possibly requiring hospitalization.

The newer grading system looks like this:

  • Grade A: few symptoms, lower risk of getting worse
  • Grade B: worse symptoms, lower risk of getting worse
  • Grade C: few symptoms, higher risk of getting worse
  • Grade D: worse symptoms, higher risk of getting worse

Because different doctors use different staging systems, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about where you fall on the number-based and letter-based stages. Knowing the stage won’t change the symptoms you’re experiencing every day, but it could give you a clearer picture of what to expect going forward.

COPD is a progressive disease, meaning that symptoms get worse over time. If you have stage 3 COPD, your symptoms might not be exactly the same as someone else with the same spirometry measurements. However, you may experience some or all of these symptoms, such as:

  • extreme shortness of breath
  • cough that brings up mucus
  • wheezing when you breathe
  • a tight feeling in your chest
  • swelling in your ankles, feet, or legs
  • weight loss
  • loss of muscle strength
  • fatigue

In stage 3, you might have a harder time doing activities you used to do with ease. You may also need help taking care of your daily needs. It’s also possible you’ll develop more infections in your lungs.

A healthcare professional may use some or all of these methods to determine whether you have COPD and what stage or grade you’re experiencing:

  • spirometry (a breathing test)
  • a walking test
  • imaging scans such as X-rays or CT scans to locate problem areas in your lungs and airways
  • blood gas tests to measure the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood

A doctor may also ask you about what activities you can and can’t do and about your other symptoms. All of this information, taken together, will help to create a treatment plan specifically for you.

When you’re first diagnosed with COPD, you might not need much treatment. But by the time your lung function reaches stage 3, you may need more intervention.

Quitting smoking is one of the most important steps you can take to improve your COPD symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.

People with COPD who have difficulty breathing and frequent infections may take medications to reduce their symptoms. These medications can include:

  • bronchodilators to open up your airways
  • corticosteroids to decrease swelling and mucus
  • antibiotics to fight viral and bacterial infections
  • vaccinations to prevent illnesses

Your treatment plan could also include other interventions, such as pulmonary rehabilitation, lung surgery, or oxygen therapy. You might also benefit from other therapies that decrease stress and improve your overall quality of life, such as:

COPD is a serious, progressive illness. Most experts agree that there’s no cure for the disease at this time.

Still, there is a lot you can do to improve the way you feel and to slow down the progression of your symptoms. It’s important to keep up to date with flu and pneumonia vaccines to prevent illnesses. Being diligent about taking your medications will also help.

Your outlook (and your overall health) will benefit from taking these steps, too:

COPD is a progressive lung disease. At stage 3, you may feel more tired and have more shortness of breath. You may also have more frequent lung infections.

There are treatments that can help with your symptoms and slow the progression of the illness.

If you smoke, this is the time to quit.

Talk with a healthcare professional about any changes in your health or symptoms so that you can take advantage of therapies that can let you do more of what matters to you.