COPD

Most Common Signs Of COPD

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (or COPD) often results from smoking, or a common cold, or flu-like illness. COPD occurs when the airways in your lungs become inflamed due to excess mucus build-up. As a result the airways become blocked and oxygen intake is depleted.

An awareness of the early warning signs of COPD can be the first step to prevent the condition from worsening. If left untreated, COPD can turn into a viral or bacterial lung infection, or result in the complete loss of lung function.

If you have one or several of the following COPD symptoms, seek medical attention immediately:

1. Shortness of Breath

COPD causes dyspnea, also known as shortness of breath. It is typically one of the first symptoms to show up which is why it can sometimes be overlooked. While it’s different for many people, most COPD patients describe it as “feeling like gasping or labored breathing. Other people describe the sensation of ‘air hunger,’” writes Very Well Health.

In the beginning it might only show up during exercise, but as the condition progresses it will become worse and begin appearing after activities that weren’t tiring before, like walking. “As the disease progresses you can get shortness of breath from even a small activity like walking to your bathroom or climbing up the stairs, or walking to your house,” says Haven Shah, MD, pulmonary critical care specialist at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois to Reader’s Digest.

2. Persistent Cough

A chronic cough is another common and well known symptom of COPD. We’ve all had a cough before, but what’s a “chronic” cough? Medically, it’s defined as a cough that lasts for longer than 8-weeks, says Very Well Health. The coughing begins as a result of the swelling and inflammation in the airways which is caused by COPD. Similar to shortness of breath, because coughing is one of the first symptoms to show up it’s often overlooked, especially in smokers. People will often chock it up to being a “smoker’s cough” or due to allergies or their environment.

“The cough comes on slowly and can be a productive cough,” says Brian Stein, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago when talking to Reader’s Digest. It’s either dry or will produce mucus, which we will get to next. Remember that while coughing is the body’s natural way of protecting the airways, especially from irritants like cigarette smoke, a persistent and chronic cough means the lungs aren’t functioning properly.

3. Coughing Up Phlegm

Another common early warning sign of COPD is increased mucus. Our body produces mucus to protect or trap inhaled irritants. Someone who smokes tobacco or other irritants will have more mucus production in their body than the average person, notes Healthline.

When it comes to COPD, it’s typically at its worst in the morning. You’ll be constantly trying to clear your throat because there is excess mucus in your lungs, says Mayo Clinic. You might also have a cough that is producing mucus that is white, yellow, clear, or even greenish in color.

This mucus or phlegm is referred to as sputum which Reader’s Digest explains is just a mixture of saliva and mucus. “Often the persistent cough is worse in the morning, but can get worse throughout the day,” says Stein.

4. Wheezing

COPD can cause a wheezing or whistling sound during inhalation and exhalation. According to Very Well Health, this wheezing noise is due to the narrowing or even a blockage in the airway. It might also cause other strange sounds that can be picked up with a stethoscope.

5. Tight Chest

Someone with COPD will also experience a tightness in their chest. Reader’s Digest points out that unlike difficulty breathing, this isn’t specific to COPD, but can happen. The tightness in their chest might also come alongside shortness of breath. “When people describe chest tightness they might feel like they can’t get a breath in,” says Brian Stein, MD, to the source.

Very Well Health says the tightness in the chest feels like a pressure on the chest walls which will also make breathing difficult. “Chest tightness may be present when there is an infection in your lungs and it may make deep breathing painful (pleuritic chest pain), causing respiration to be short and shallow.”

6. Blue Lips and Nails

Blue lips and nails are a common sign in the later stages of COPD, says Healthline. Anyone who has COPD and is exhibiting these signs needs to seek medical care as soon as possible.

7. Unintentional Weight Loss

Most of us work really hard to lose weight or even maintain our weight, so when weight loss starts happening on its own without any explanation, it’s concerning. While weight gain is actually more common in the early stages because the individual will be unable to exercise due to difficulty breathing, it will soon turn into extreme weight loss and loss of appetite. These symptoms can be quite serious and even lead to malnutrition in extreme cases.  “Both appetite loss and unintentional weight loss are symptoms that warrant further investigation, as they may also indicate that other disease are present, such as lung cancer or pulmonary tuberculosis,” writes Very Well Health. The source also notes that eating healthy is actually super important for people with COPD. If you want to know more, check out this article on 8 Healthy Eating Tips for COPD Patients

COPD causes air to become trapped in the lungs because air isn’t released properly. “When you trap air, it’s as if you’re breathing on top of a full lung. Expanding in the chest and going back to baseline, the resting state, becomes very difficult. That increased work of breathing can lead to weight loss,” says Umur Hatipoglu, MD, when talking to Reader’s Digest.  

8. Headaches

Individuals with COPD will suffer from headaches, particularly in the mornings. This is again due to the lack of oxygen in the lungs. “When your lungs don’t work properly, you don’t get enough oxygen while you are asleep, and carbon dioxide builds up in your blood,” writes Everyday Health. Lightheadedness and dizziness will accompany these morning headaches.

9. Trouble Sleeping

People who have COPD will have trouble sleeping because their airways tighten during circadian rhythms This can become especially uncomfortable during the early hours of the morning when the airways are at their smallest in diameter.

“When you have COPD, you don’t have a lot of reserve; so in the morning as the airways get tighter or smaller, you may become symptomatic and that will wake you up,” says Umur Hatipoglu, MD, and medical director of the Center for Comprehensive Care for COPD at the Respiratory Institute at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio to Reader’s Digest.

10. Extreme Fatigue

We all get tired from time to time, especially if we didn’t get enough shut eye the night before. However, the fatigue associated with COPD is extreme and usual. You’ll be more tired than normal and it’ll be more like a lack of energy or stamina than just some weary eyes. “Overall, fatigue is three times more common in people with lung disease than in those without it. While dyspnea is the most worrisome symptom among those with COPD, fatigue can be one of the most bothersome,” writes Very Well Health

Reader’s Digest talked to Brian Stein, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago who explains the fatigue might come from over exertion because patients have to work so much harder to breathe. Since there are many reasons and even health conditions that cause fatigue, evaluate whether you’re experiencing other symptoms on this list and consult with a doctor to determine if COPD is the cause.

11. Swollen Ankles

Healthline explains that another symptom of COPD is swelling of the feet, ankles or legs, but this more commonly occurs in the later stages.

The swelling occurs because the blood vessels don’t get enough oxygen and puts a strain on the heart, says Everyday Health. “This strain can cause fluid to build up, making your ankles, feet, or legs swell up. The swelling can also be caused by damage to your lungs,” writes the source.

12. Chronic Respiratory Infections

People who have COPD will frequently suffer from chronic respiratory infections like a cold, the flu or even pneumonia. The reason for this is because the lungs aren’t functioning sufficiently, so it makes them more susceptible to these infections, says Very Well Health.

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