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Identifying COPD Early On for Better Outcomes

COPD affects more than 16 million people in the United States alone.1 In fact, it’s the most common lung disease in the world.2 Even more staggering is the fact that there may be another 12 million people or more who have COPD, but do not yet know it.3

Add to that the fact that it is widely recognized that early diagnosis and treatment can relieve symptoms, reduce the risk of death and improve quality of life.4 In other words, catching COPD early might alter the course and outcome of your disease. So, can you see why we need to do a better job of identifying COPD before it gets to its more severe stages?

Why Is It So Hard to Diagnose COPD?

If it’s so important to diagnose COPD early on, then why doesn’t it happen? Well, there can be many reasons for this.

The patient might not want to know.

 I believe that my dad had COPD for many years. As a home health care nurse who had cared for countless COPD patients, I recognized the symptoms. My dad used to lean against the kitchen counter, panting and coughing for a half hour at a time. “It’s just allergies,” he’d say. In fact, after a few years of that, he went into respiratory failure before he ever admitted his diagnosis and accepted treatment — too late. He died a couple of weeks later. We never did know if he was just in denial, or if he was trying to protect his family. Or maybe he just didn’t want to quit smoking for good.

The symptoms can be confused with other conditions.

Especially if the person never smoked, the doctor may opt for a diagnosis such as asthma or bronchitis initially. COPD may only be identified when the disease begins to progress more rapidly. That can take years, though, as COPD is often very slow to progress in its early stages.

People may mistake the early, mild symptoms of COPD as just part of the aging process.

Sometimes people assume that as they get older, the body is just likely to stop working as well. Feeling a little short of breath when climbing stairs or not having as much energy might seem like things you should expect after a certain age. Since COPD is more common over the age of 65, it’s easy to see how assumptions like that might be made. And that may keep a person from telling the doctor about how he or she is feeling.

There may be other reasons as well. How early were you diagnosed?

What Are the Early Signs of COPD?

The early signs of COPD are the same as the hallmark signs:4

  • A Chronic cough, especially one that brings up mucus & lasts longer than 2 months
  • Wheezing (noisy breathing)
  • Shortness of breath; at first after exercise and then later more consistently
  • Chest tightness
  • Feeling tired most of the time
  • Being prone to frequent respiratory infections

These symptoms can vary from person to person. They may also be so mild you hardly notice them at first. It’s often only when they rapidly increase in severity that people seek treatment.

What Do You Do If You Start to Notice These Symptoms?

If you start to notice any or all of the above symptoms are occurring on a fairly regular basis, then it’s time to make an appointment to see your doctor. It may or may not be COPD. There are other conditions that have similar symptoms. But you won’t know for sure unless you check it out.

And getting a COPD diagnosis and starting treatment early can make a big difference in your health. With early detection and treatment, you might be able to greatly slow down the progression of COPD.

Without the right treatment, your COPD can get progressively worse. It may even cause disability. There is no cure for COPD, but with treatment and lifestyle changes, you can preserve your quality of life for some time to come.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The COPD.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. COPD National Action Plan. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/education-and-awareness/COPD-national-action-plan. Accessed January 8, 2019.
  2. Gartman E, Csikesz N. New developments in the assessment of COPD: early diagnosis is key. International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. February 2014:277-286. doi:10.2147/copd.s46198
  3. NIH Fact Sheets - Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). National Institutes of Health. https://report.nih.gov/nihfactsheets/ViewFactSheet.aspx?csid=77. Accessed January 8, 2019.
  4. Wadehra S. Early signs and symptoms of COPD and when to see a doctor. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323131.php. Accessed January 8, 2019.

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