3 Symptoms of COPD You Should Not Ignore

May 7th 2016

Without treatment, COPD can be fatal, but the disease is easy to manage when it is accurately diagnosed and properly treated. Shortness of breath, a persistent cough and a consistent feeling of tiredness are signs you should not ignore.

Common Causes

Smokers over the age of 40 are at the most risk for developing COPD, but individuals who are regularly exposed to irritants such as smoke, chemical fumes and pollutants are also at risk. Studies have shown that chronic bronchitis and emphysema significantly contribute to the condition. In rare cases of COPD, an alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is to blame. This genetic disorder accounts for approximately 1 percent of all cases. COPD causes inflammation in the lungs which blocks the airflow needed for proper respiration.

Symptoms You Shouldn't Ignore

According to the Mayo Clinic, a person may already have lung damage by the time symptoms of COPD appear. Many of the symptoms are also associated with other conditions so an early and complete diagnosis is not always possible. It is not uncommon for an at-risk person to deny possible signs of COPD, but early detection and intervention increases the chance of successful treatment.

If you experience shortness of breath, a persistent cough with increased mucus, or a lack of energy and chronic fatigue, schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible. These three symptoms are not always an indication of COPD, but they are typically the most apparent early warning signs of the condition. COPD symptoms usually worsen as the disease progresses if proper treatment is not administered.

COPD Diagnosis

Doctors use a variety of tests to diagnose COPD, but they generally begin with an evaluation of a patient's risk factors and symptoms. Chest x-rays provide information on lung and heart health, allowing doctors to diagnose underlying COPD conditions such as emphysema, and to rule out other lung and heart diseases. Your doctor may also draw blood to perform an arterial blood gas analysis test. This test measures oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood to determine how well your lungs perform.

Several pulmonary function tests are used to make an accurate diagnosis. Spirometry uses a simple machine called a spirometer to measure lung function and capacity. Individuals with a high risk of COPD may also undergo tests that measure lung volume, oxygen levels and diffusing capacity. In some cases, a doctor may order a CT scan of a patient's lungs. CT scans are useful in the diagnosis of emphysema and in screening for lung cancer. The test is also used to estimate the effectiveness of a surgical procedure.

Treatment Options

COPD increases the chance of developing other conditions such as heart disease and lung cancer, but most cases of COPD are mild and it can be treated effectively with very little intervention. Smoking cessation is the most common and crucial course of treatment. Patches, inhalers and other nicotine-replacement products are often prescribed to make quitting easier. Medications such as bronchodilators, steroids and theophylline help improve breathing, reduce inflammation, and prevent flare-ups or exacerbations.

Individuals with moderate to severe cases of COPD usually benefit from breathing therapy sessions. Oxygen therapy is proven to extend life expectancy in patients with COPD and is known for improving their quality of life. Pulmonary rehabilitation programs take a more holistic approach and combine breathing, exercise, nutrition and other health concerns into a single treatment plan.

Surgery options are available for some patients with COPD. Candidates generally have a severe form of emphysema and typical treatment options do not improve their condition. In some cases, a lung transplant is the best solution.


In 2013, over 12 million Americans suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and an additional 12 million people most likely had the disease but did not know it, according to the American Lung Association. COPD is a chronic disorder that affects the lungs and the respiratory system. In many cases, it is easy for the symptoms to go unnoticed.

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