Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a long-term lung disease. It comprises diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. A long-term cough is often the telltale symptom of COPD. There are also other symptoms that can occur as lung damage progresses.

Many of these symptoms can also be slow to develop. More advanced symptoms appear when significant lung damage has already 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 talk with your doctor.

Cough is often the first symptom of COPD.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the chronic bronchitis component of COPD is diagnosed if your cough persists for three months or longer out of a year for at least two years. The cough may occur every day, even if there are no other symptoms of illness.

A cough is how the body removes mucus and clears other secretions and irritants from the airways and the lungs. These irritants might include dust or pollen.

Usually the mucus that people cough up is clear. However, 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’re physically active or you smoke.

As COPD progresses, you might experience other symptoms aside from a cough. These may occur in the early to middle stages of the disease.

When you exhale and air is forced through narrow or obstructed air passages in the lungs, you may hear a whistling or musical sound, called wheezing.

In people with COPD, it’s most often caused by excess mucus obstructing the airways. This is in conjunction with muscular tightening that further narrows the airways.

Wheezing may also be a symptom of asthma or pneumonia.

Some people with COPD may also have a condition that includes symptoms of both COPD and asthma. This is known as ACOS (asthma-COPD overlap syndrome). It’s estimated that 15 to 45 percent of adults diagnosed with asthma or COPD have this condition.

As the airways in your lungs become swollen (inflamed) and damaged, they can begin to narrow. You might find it more difficult to breathe or catch your breath.

This COPD symptom is most noticeable during increased physical activity. It can make even daily tasks challenging, including:

  • walking
  • simple household chores
  • dressing
  • bathing

At its worst, it can even occur during rest. Learn more about dyspnea here.

You often can’t get enough oxygen to your blood and 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 oxygen in and carbon dioxide out.

People with COPD have less reliable immune systems. COPD also makes it harder to clear the lungs of pollutants, dust, and other irritants. When this happens, people with COPD are at greater risk for lung infections such as colds, flus, and pneumonia.

It can be hard to avoid infections, but practicing good handwashing and getting the right vaccinations can reduce your risk.

As the disease progresses, you might notice some additional symptoms. They can happen suddenly without warning.

A COPD exacerbation is episodes of worsening symptoms that can 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. Headaches can also occur with lower oxygen levels too. If ill, you may also experience a fever.

Swollen feet and ankles

Throughout the course of the disease, lung damage may lead to swelling in your feet and ankles.

This occurs because your heart has to work harder to pump blood to the damaged lungs. This, in turn, can lead to congestive heart failure (CHF).

Cardiovascular disease

Though the link between COPD and cardiovascular disease isn’t fully understood, COPD can increase your risk for heart-related problems. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is one of these problems.

Advanced COPD may also increase your risk for heart attacks and strokes.

Weight loss

You may also lose weight if you've had COPD for a long time. The extra energy your body requires to breathe and move air in and out of the lungs may be burning more calories than your body is taking in. This causes you to lose weight.

COPD causes irreversible damage to your lungs. Still, you can manage COPD symptoms and prevent further damage with proper treatment. Symptoms that don’t improve, and more advanced symptoms of the disease, can mean that your treatment isn’t working.

Contact your doctor right away if you notice your symptoms aren’t improving with medications or oxygen therapy. If you have COPD, early intervention is the best way to ease your symptoms and extend your life.

Q:

I was recently diagnosed with COPD. What lifestyle changes should I be making to help manage my condition?

A:

Quit smoking. This is the most important thing anyone with COPD can do, along with avoiding any secondhand smoke. Talk to your doctor if you need help quitting.

Look into pulmonary rehabilitation. These programs can help increase your physical activity. Breathing exercises can improve symptoms and lead to a better quality of life.

Get social support. It’s important to talk with friends and family about your condition so that activities can be modified. Staying engaged socially is an important step toward decreasing isolation and loneliness.

Maintain a good relationship with your healthcare team. When you have COPD, you often have a team of caregivers. It’s important to keep all appointments and maintain open lines of communication. Let them know what’s working and what’s not so that changes can be made to give you the best life possible.

Take your medications as directed. Medications are an important and necessary tool in the management of COPD. Taking prescriptions regularly and as directed is one of the best ways to help keep your symptoms under control.

Judith Marcin, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.