COPD, short for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a progressive lung disease that causes breathing difficulties and can be fatal. Millions of Americans suffer from it and millions more may have it and not even know it. Could you be one of them? It’s not always easy to tell.
Who is at risk?
Most at risk for developing COPD are smokers, former smokers and people who’ve had frequent exposure to other irritants. These irritants can include:
Sawdust or other aerosolized particles
The Mayo clinic states that most people are at least 35 to 40 years old before symptoms of COPD begin to show up. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) reports that the disease develops most often in people who are 40 or older.
According to the American Lung Association more than 11 million Americans have COPD. Another 12–24 million may have the condition but haven’t been diagnosed.
Recognizing the symptoms
One reason so many people who have COPD don’t know it is that some of the symptoms are similar to those of other conditions. People often ignore their symptoms thinking they’re related to something less serious. Unfortunately, COPD symptoms don’t become apparent until significant lung damage has begun.
A nagging cough
One of the first signs of COPD is usually a long-term or chronic cough. Coughing helps to protect the airways from inhaled irritants such as cigarette smoke. It also helps to remove phlegm (mucus) from the breathing passages. Although the lungs are responding normally to irritation, a chronic cough is an indication that the lungs aren’t functioning normally.
A constant cough or a cough with no other signs of a cold or flu could be a sign of COPD. If you’ve been coughing constantly for a few weeks or longer or if you experience a new onset of wheezing, be sure to talk to your doctor.
More mucus production
In COPD, coughing usually goes hand-in-hand with a second early-stage symptom: the production of a large amount of mucus or phlegm. Your lungs produce mucus to help trap or keep inhaled irritants out. Tobacco smoke and other irritants can lead to the production of up to three times the normal amount of mucus.
If you feel the need to clear mucus first thing in the morning, have a noticeable increase in the amount of mucus produced, or a change in its color or texture, it could be a warning sign that you have COPD.
Shortness of breath
Shortness of breath or a feeling of breathlessness is when your lungs take more effort than usual to move air in and out. Initially, breathlessness may occur only with increased physical activity, such as playing sports or walking uphill. You also might find yourself running out of breath when you’re climbing stairs or walking to your car. It is even possible to be short of breath when you’re not doing anything at all. Even if it happens only occasionally, be sure to talk to your doctor.
Fatigue, or tiredness, is another common symptom in people with COPD. You may find that you get tired more easily than you did in the past. You may also have problems sleeping. Coughing alone can interrupt your sleep, and you may not be able to get comfortable in bed because you have problems breathing when lying down.
You may also notice a loss of energy or stamina. If you feel more tired than usual, talk to your doctor to determine if it’s a result of COPD.
In addition to the symptoms above, there are other warning signs that could mean you have COPD. These include:
Head pain when you get up in the morning brought on by a lack of enough oxygen while you sleep;
Swollen ankles that are the result of your blood vessels not getting enough oxygen and putting strain on your heart and causing fluid to build up in your ankles, feet and legs;
Unexplained weight loss when COPD causes your lungs to have to work harder for you to breathe, often burning more than 10 times the calories than when the lung is functioning normally. COPD can also lead to a loss of appetite.
Once known as a “man’s disease,” COPD now afflicts and kills more women than men. First lady Barbara Bush lived with COPD in her final years.
How is COPD diagnosed?
Unfortunately most people with COPD don’t make appointments to see their doctors until symptoms become pronounced over a period of time. The severity of these symptoms depends on the amount of lung damage a person has. That’s why it is so important to know and recognize the common symptoms so it can be diagnosed and treatment begun as soon as possible.
Be sure to tell your doctor about all of your symptoms and about your personal history with smoking and exposure to other irritants in the home, at work or in the environment. Your doctor will give you a physical exam and order tests to determine if you have COPD. The tests include lung function tests to measure your breathing. These tests can also help rule out other conditions.
There is no cure for COPD, but for many people, it can be treated effectively. Early diagnosis and timely treatment are crucial to helping control symptoms and manage disease progression. If you have any of these symptoms, especially if you are a former or current smoker, be sure to talk to your doctor right away. If your symptoms aren’t caused by COPD you can breathe a sigh of relief. If they are, you are doing the best thing possible to get on the road to breathing a little easier.