Medical News Today: What are the early signs of COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a severe and progressive lung condition. However, early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can significantly improve a person’s outlook.

Some of the early signs of COPD include coughing, excess mucus, shortness of breath, and tiredness.

COPD is a long-term lung disease that causes the obstruction of a person’s airways and makes it difficult to breathe. It is a progressive condition, which means that it tends to gets worse over time. Without treatment, COPD can be life-threatening.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Global Burden of Disease Study reported that COPD affected around 251 million people worldwide in 2016. The study also estimated that COPD caused 3.17 million deaths globally in 2015.

There is no cure for COPD, but appropriate treatment can relieve a person’s symptoms, reduce their risk of death, and improve their quality of life.

In this article, we describe the early signs and symptoms of COPD. We also cover when to see a doctor and diagnosis.

Early signs and symptoms

Senior man with COPD coughing into tissue.
A person in the early stages of COPD may experience chronic coughing.

In its early stages, COPD may not cause any symptoms, or they may be so mild that the individual does not notice them at first.

The symptoms and severity of COPD can also vary from person to person. However, because the disease is progressive, symptoms often get worse over time.

The early signs and symptoms of COPD can include:

Chronic cough

A persistent, or chronic, cough is often one of the first symptoms of COPD. A person may experience a chesty cough that does not go away on its own. Doctors generally consider a cough that lasts for longer than 2 months to be chronic.

Coughing is a protective mechanism that typically occurs in response to irritants, such as inhaled cigarette or tobacco smoke, getting into the lungs. Coughing also helps remove phlegm, or mucus, from the lungs.

However, if a person has an ongoing cough, this may signify a problem with their lungs.

Excess mucus production

Producing too much mucus can also be an early symptom of COPD. Mucus is essential for keeping the airways moist, and it also captures germs and irritants that get into the lungs.

When a person inhales an irritant, their body produces more mucus, which can lead to coughing. Smoking is a very common cause of excess mucus production and coughing.

Long-term exposure to irritants can damage the lungs and lead to COPD. Other lung irritants can include:

  • chemical fumes, such as those from paints and strong cleaning products
  • dust
  • pollution, including car exhaust fumes
  • perfumes, hairsprays, and other spray cosmetics

Shortness of breath and tiredness

The obstruction of the air passages can make it more difficult for a person to breathe, which can lead to shortness of breath. This is another common symptom of COPD.

At first, shortness of breath may only occur after exercise, but it can worsen over time. Some people cope with their breathing difficulties by becoming less active, which can lead to them becoming less physically fit.

A person with COPD needs to exert extra effort to breathe. This exertion can result in lower energy levels and feeling tired all the time.


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Other symptoms of COPD

Woman with shortness of breath and chest pain
Chest pain and tightness are potential symptoms of COPD.

Because their lungs are not functioning normally, people with COPD are more likely to experience chest infections, including the common cold, flu, and pneumonia.

Other symptoms of COPD can include:

  • wheezing, or noisy breathing
  • chest pain
  • coughing up blood
  • chest tightness
  • unintentional weight loss
  • swelling in the lower legs

A person with COPD may also experience flare-ups. This is when symptoms suddenly become worse for a time. Triggers of COPD flare-ups can include chest infections and exposure to cigarette smoke and other lung irritants.

When to see a doctor

A person who experiences any of the above symptoms regularly should see a doctor. It is possible to experience some of these symptoms without having COPD, as several other conditions have similar signs and symptoms.

A doctor can usually distinguish between COPD and other diseases. Early diagnosis of COPD can allow a person to receive treatment sooner, which can help slow the progression of the disease before it becomes severe or life-threatening.


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Diagnosis

X-ray of chest focusing on ribcage and lungs
A doctor may recommend a chest X-ray to diagnose COPD.

A doctor will start by asking the individual about their symptoms and medical history, including whether or not they smoke and if they have had exposure to any lung irritants.

The doctor may also perform a physical examination and check for wheezing or other signs of lung problems.

To confirm their diagnosis, a doctor may order some tests, such as:

  • Spirometry. This is where a person breathes into a tube that connects to a machine called a spirometer. The spirometer measures how well a person’s lungs are working. To begin the test, the doctor may ask the person to inhale a bronchodilator, which is a type of medication that opens up the airways.
  • Chest X-ray or CT scan. These imaging tests allow a doctor to see inside a person’s chest to check for signs of COPD or other medical conditions.
  • Blood tests. The doctor may order blood tests to check oxygen levels or rule out other conditions that cause similar signs and symptoms to COPD.

What is COPD?

COPD is the term for a group of lung diseases that tend to worsen over time. Examples include emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

The lungs consist of many tubes, or airways, that branch into even smaller tubes. At the ends of these airways are tiny air sacs that inflate and deflate during breathing.

When a person breathes in, oxygen moves down these tubes and passes through the sacs into the bloodstream. When they breathe out, carbon dioxide gas, which is a waste product, leaves the bloodstream and passes out through the air sacs and airways.

In people with COPD, chronic inflammation of the lungs blocks the airways and can make breathing more difficult. COPD also causes coughing and increased mucus production, which can lead to further blockages. The airways and air sacs can become damaged or less flexible.

The most common cause of COPD is smoking cigarettes or other tobacco products. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, up to 75 percent of people with COPD either smoke or used to smoke. However, long-term exposure to other irritants or harmful fumes may also cause or contribute to COPD.

Genetics may also increase the risk of developing COPD. For example, people who have a deficiency in a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin may be more likely to develop COPD, especially if they smoke or get regular exposure to other lung irritants.

The signs and symptoms of COPD most often start in people aged 40 years or older.


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Outlook

COPD is a common condition. However, some people mistake its symptoms for the normal signs of aging, which can mean that they do not get a diagnosis. Without treatment, COPD can become progressively worse over time.

COPD can be a significant cause of disability. An individual with severe COPD may struggle with day-to-day tasks, such as climbing a flight of stairs or standing for prolonged periods to cook a meal. Flare-ups and complications can also severely impact a person’s health and quality of life.

There is no cure for COPD, but the early diagnosis and treatment of this condition can greatly improve a person’s outlook. Appropriate treatment and lifestyle changes can relieve symptoms and slow or halt COPD’s progression.

Treatment options include medications, oxygen therapy, and pulmonary rehabilitation. Lifestyle changes involve doing regular exercise, eating a healthful diet, and stopping smoking.

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