Symptoms of COPD

Quincy AdamCOPD Learn

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) often goes undetected in its early stages. This is because the early symptoms of COPD, if any, can be mild and easily mistaken for a less serious ailment like the common cold, putting off a correct diagnosis.

Many people simply brush off the symptoms or adjust their lifestyle accordingly to help make breathing easier. For example, smokers often assume that a chronic cough is just a smoker’s cough. Also, shortness of breath is often chalked up to being out of shape, leading people to avoid strenuous exercise or activities that make them feel short of breath.

Symptoms of COPD worsen as the disease progresses and often don’t appear until significant lung damage has occurred, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you know the signs of COPD and believe you may suffer from it, you can seek medical care immediately, helping you to manage the disease.

The Signs and Symptoms

The Lung Association lists the following as common signs and symptoms of COPD:

  • Chronic cough
  • Shortness of breath while doing your usual activities (dyspnea)
  • Frequent respiratory infections, such as colds, bronchitis, and pneumonia
  • Wheezing
  • Excess phlegm
  • Fatigue

Chest tightness and having to clear your throat when you wake up may also be a warning sign of COPD. In later stages, weight loss may also occur. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, severe COPD may also cause swelling of the legs, ankles, and feet, and lowered muscle endurance.

COPD Exacerbations

People with COPD may experience exacerbations, or flare-ups, during which symptoms worsen and can become severe. During this time, there is an increased risk of complications which can even be life-threatening. So, it’s important to recognize a COPD exacerbation so that you can seek emergency medical treatment.

Symptoms of COPD exacerbations include:

  • Inability to catch your breath or speak
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Blueness of the lips and fingernail beds from low oxygen levels in your blood
  • Confusion
  • Impaired mental alertness
  • Severe fatigue
  • Changes in color of mucus from clear to yellow, green, tan, or bloody
  • Fever

During an exacerbation, your symptoms may not be relieved by your recommended treatment. According to a paper published in February 2013 in AJN, the American Journal of Nursing, the frequency of exacerbations may increase as the disease progresses, which may diminish lung function. Even though a patient may recover lung function following a flare-up, many don’t recover the same level of lung function as before.

Speak to your doctor about what you can do to help prevent exacerbations. Also, if your symptoms change or worsen, bring them to the attention of your doctor right away. Seek emergency care for any severe symptoms.

Difficulties related to breathing or chronic symptoms, even if only mild, should be taken seriously. It is especially important if you are a previous smoker or someone with a higher risk. Being aware of the symptoms can lead to treating COPD more effectively for a better outcome.


Mayo Clinic Staff. COPD: Symptoms. Mayo Clinic.http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/copd/basics/symptoms/con-20032017. Accessed March 19, 2015.American Lung Association. What Are the Symptoms of COPD? American Lung Association. http://www.lung.org/lung-disease/copd/about-copd/symptoms-diagnosis-treatment.html.

3 National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What Are the Signs and Symptoms of COPD? NIH.http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/copd/signs. Accessed March 19, 2015.

Burt, Leah MS, APN, Corbridge, Susan PhD, APN, FAANP (February 2013). COPD Exacerbations. In AJN, American Journal of Nursing, Volume 113 – Issue 2- pp 34, 43. http://journals.lww.com/ajnonline/Fulltext/2013/02000/COPD_Exacerbations.22.aspx. Accessed March 19, 2015.