Detecting the Early Signs of COPD

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Detecting the Early Signs of COPD
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a serious condition that cannot be cured today. And lung damage is not reversible. But early detection may help improve your outcome and result in:

  • Less lung damage and slower decline in lung function
  • Better quality of life
  • Longer life expectancy

Below are some early signs of COPD that you should watch for, but first a caution: watching for the initial warnings of COPD can be challenging. Many people don’t notice the symptoms of COPD until they have significant lung damage.

So, if you are a smoker or have been exposed to chemical and toxic fumes, you may want to monitor yourself carefully for early signs of COPD. Writing in the International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, researchers noted that: “Studies have shown that since the 1960s, smoking is a major risk factor that has caused COPD.”1

Emphysema and Chronic Bronchitis: The Smoking Diseases

Smoking is the primary cause of:

  • Emphysema—shortness of breath that becomes worse over time
  • Chronic bronchitis—inflammation of the airways resulting in cough and increased production of mucus

In the case of chronic bronchitis, you will notice that your cough tends to last for several (three or more) months and occur in two or more consecutive years. While your early signs of COPD may lean toward either emphysema or chronic bronchitis, most COPD develops as some combination of both diseases.

Nine Early Signs of COPD

Below are some symptoms to look out for:

1. Sudden Shortness of Breath

Any change in breathing patterns and shortness of breath is reason enough to visit your doctor. Don’t wait to determine if the symptom appears to occur more frequently or becomes more severe.

2. Chronic Cough

Be aware of coughing accompanied by the need to clear mucus from throat and lungs, especially if these symptoms occur in the morning.

3. Increased Production of Mucus

If mucus is present whether or not you have a respiratory infection, consult a doctor, whether it’s clear, white or greenish-yellow.

4. Wheezing

Wheezing may indicate that your airways are narrowing due to the accumulation of mucus, muscle spasms or swelling.

5. Tight Chest

If your chest is tight, it may be due to the increased accumulation of mucus in airways and lungs or a lung infection such as chronic bronchitis.

6. Frequent Respiratory Infections

If you notice a pattern of respiratory infections that results in greater frequency of infections than when you were younger, consult with a medical professional.

7. Difficulty in Breathing Deeply

Although most people use their diaphragm in breathing, if you have COPD, you may notice that you rely on the muscles of the neck, back and shoulders and don’t breathe as deeply.

8. Fatigue

While feeling tired may be a sign of other conditions, it is a common early sign of COPD, especially when you also notice breathlessness. Your body may not be getting enough oxygen. Also, you may be expending more energy on breathing.

9. Blue Tinge to Lips and Fingernail Beds

Just remember, blue is bad. If your lips or fingernails are blue, it could indicate you lack oxygen in your blood.

Be observant, especially if you smoke or have smoked in the past or have had long-term exposure to chemicals, toxic fumes or industrial pollution. Any change in breathing, frequency of respiratory infections, coughing and the production of mucus is probably a good reason to consult your doctor.

In turn, your doctor will need to conduct pulmonary function tests to determine if you are showing the early signs of COPD.


Hazlinda Abu Hassan et al, “Does the Duration of Smoking Cessation Have an Impact on Hospital Admission and Health-Related Quality of Life Amongst COPD Patients?” International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4027923/ (May 2014).