Recognizing the Symptoms of COPD

A couple sits outdoors together.
Choose the health content that's right for you, and get it delivered right in your inbox

A diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can feel overwhelming. After all, it’s a chronic disease that can significantly impact your life. But COPD is often preventable, and with help from your doctor, can be treatable.

What is COPD?

The third leading cause of death by disease in the United States, COPD is a chronic health condition that causes the airways in your lungs to become inflamed and thicken, destroying the tissues that exchange oxygen. As a result, the air flowing in and out of your lungs decreases, the tissues throughout your body get less oxygen and it becomes harder for your body to rid itself of carbon dioxide.

From shortness of breath that makes it hard to stay active to severe, long-term disabilities, COPD symptoms require daily management. That’s why it takes continual care from a trusted physician. Working together, you can create a plan to manage your symptoms, help you stay engaged in the activities of daily living and keep you living your best life.

What are the Warning Signs of COPD?

When it comes to COPD, shortness of breath is usually the first sign. But since most people associate breathing issues with normal aging, they tend to overlook it as a precursor for more serious health issues. That’s why COPD often isn't found until the disease has advanced.

Other COPD symptoms include:

  • A chronic cough that produces mucus
  • Blue lips or nail beds
  • Chest tightness
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Lack of energy
  • Swelling of feet, legs or ankles
  • Unintended weight loss (in later stages)
  • Wheezing

If you or a loved one are learning to live with COPD, it’s likely you’ll experience periods of time when your symptoms will worsen. These “exacerbations” can last for several days at a time.

What Causes COPD?

From environmental toxins to cigarette smoke, irritants damage your lungs and airways over time. Of those irritants, the leading cause of COPD is smoking. But nonsmokers can get it, too.

Some hereditary factors can also contribute to the development of COPD.

Smoking and COPD

Cigarette smoking causes 85 to 90 percent of all COPD cases. When a cigarette burns, it releases more than 7,000 chemicals, most of which are harmful. These toxins can irritate your air tubes, damage your air sacs, weaken your defense against infections and narrow your air passages — all of which contribute to the development of the disease.

Environmental Toxins

The air you breathe every day at home, at work and outdoors can contribute to the development of COPD. Things like long-term exposure to secondhand smoke, dust, fumes, chemicals and air pollution can increase your risk.

Alpha-1 Deficiency

While rare, alpha-1 deficiency-related emphysema is caused by a genetic condition that affects the body's ability to produce the lung-protecting Alpha-1 protein.

COPD Poses a Serious Risk for Women

You may be surprised to learn that COPD deaths are higher in women than in men. Why?

Advertising: In the late 1960s, tobacco industry advertising intensely targeted women, resulting in a considerable increase in smoking among women.

Hormones: Higher estrogen levels may also impact a woman’s resilience to lung disease.

Misdiagnosis: Since COPD was once considered a man’s disease. Even today many doctors still don’t consider COPD to be a common or even potential diagnosis in women.

Size: Women are also more vulnerable to lung damage from cigarette smoke and other pollutants since their lungs are smaller.

How is COPD Diagnosed?

During your initial appointment, your doctor will want to know if you smoke, have a history of smoking or are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke. He or she will also evaluate your symptoms and review both your medical and family history.

If your doctor thinks it's likely you have COPD, tests will be recommended to get a more accurate diagnosis, including:

  • Arterial blood gas tests that determine how well your lungs move oxygen into — and carbon dioxide out of — your blood.
  • Chest x-rays to measure your blood's oxygen levels to see how well your lungs can move oxygen into your blood and carbon dioxide out.
  • CT scans can help your doctor rule out other diagnoses, such as emphysema and lung cancer.
  • Lung function tests allow your doctor to see how well your lungs are working.

What COPD Treatments are Available Today?

While there’s no cure for COPD, many treatments have proven effective for controlling its symptoms — and some can even help slow down the progression of the disease.

Every COPD case is unique, and each patient responds differently to treatments. Your doctor will work closely with you to create a personalized care plan to meets you where you are in your health journey and helps alleviate the bothersome symptoms that are holding you back from the life you love. As part of your care plan, your doctor may recommend:

  • Complementary therapies, such as massage, yoga and acupuncture that can help improve your symptoms and quality of life.
  • Lifestyle changes, like healthy eating and stopping smoking to help ease your symptoms and keep your body strong.
  • Medications, from antibiotics and steroids to treat your respiratory infections to bronchodilators to relax your airway, can help relieve COPD symptoms.
  • Participation in a clinical trial can provide an opportunity to receive innovative care options, from new medications to surgical therapies, that aren’t widely available.
  • Pulmonary rehab includes exercise, education, nutrition advice and counseling to rebuild your strength and enjoy a full and more active life.
  • Supplemental oxygen can help improve your body’s functions, such as digesting food and providing you enough energy to complete daily household chores.
  • Surgery may be considered in severe COPD cases to help improve breathing.

Here with Support for COPD

A COPD diagnosis comes with physical and emotional challenges that make it harder to do all of the things you once did. That's why you shouldn't wait for symptoms to get severe. Early detection of COPD is key to managing your symptoms and getting the compassionate support you need. At AdventHealth, we understand you have many questions and that your situation is unique. If you think you or a loved one may have COPD, we’re here to help.

Recent Blogs

A group of teenage boys playing videogames.
Helping Your Child Navigate Unhealthy Relationships
A woman on a beach wearing sunscreen on her nose and touching her nose with her index finger.
How Much SPF is Enough for Me?
Your Essential Guide to Cancer Screenings by Age
Applying sunscreen to child
Sunscreen: Most Frequently Missed Areas
What Heart Conditions Are Hereditary?
View More Articles