Fatigue: The Silent Symptom
Last updated: August 2022
While dyspnea (labored or shortness of breath) is often the most experienced, and most recognized, symptom of COPD, fatigue, or lack of energy, is frequently cited as an even more impactful symptom--especially in terms of personal quality of life.
Fatigue is the “silent” symptom that many outsiders don’t fully appreciate or even attribute to COPD. We all feel tired sometimes--it's a normal part of the human experience. But recognizing, and acting upon, COPD-related fatigue can be crucial for avoiding exacerbation and hospitalizations.
Cause of fatigue
While there are many peripheral causes of fatigue, the primary culprit in COPD is lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. Because of the progressive damage COPD causes the lungs, the air sacs are hindered in their ability to absorb the oxygen you breathe, causing diminished energy for all bodily functions.
Impact on quality of life
Fatigue can affect any and every part of the day. Sixty-nine percent of respondents in the COPD In America study reported experiencing frequent fatigue, and 79% report that their frequent experience of fatigue is one of the biggest impacts on their daily life.
Additionally, a study published in Chest Journal found a strong link between experienced fatigue and perceptions of personal quality of life and depression. Regardless of pulmonary symptoms, higher reports of fatigue were associated with lower levels of perceived quality of life, and greater feelings of depression.2 Constant exertion can weigh on the body both physically and emotionally, and feeling like you have to justify your lack of energy to friends and family can be a burden in itself.
But fatigue can be more than just a frustrating symptom to fight--it could also be an indicator of future exacerbations. A study published in the European Respiratory Journal highlighted the predictive nature of COPD fatigue: participants who reported experiencing severe fatigue were 14 times more likely to be hospitalized within the next twenty months than those experiencing less fatigue.1
These studies, among others, shine a light on the importance of recognizing and treating fatigue as a primary, impactful symptom for those with COPD. However, because fatigue can be such a ubiquitous symptom caused by a variety of conditions, it's easy to overlook and underestimate, especially for those on the outside looking in. But if you or your loved one have been struggling with a recent lack of energy, it might be time to prioritize that topic with your physician.
Ways to counteract fatigue
While there are no specific treatments for fatigue, with the exception of additional oxygen, there are lifestyle tips that can help minimize the tiredness and lack of energy.
Keep Active—While it may seem counterintuitive, mild exercise can actually fight the feeling of fatigue, and keep feelings of depression at bay. Exercise increases and enhances blood flow which allows for oxygen and nutrients to more effectively reach the cells and muscle tissue in your body, encouraging greater energy production.3
Stay Hydrated—Water, Gatorade, or other beverages with low sugar and electrolytes will help counteract the feeling of fatigue. Because almost every cell in our bodies is made up primarily of water, sufficient hydration is key to ensuring optimal function. Drink water throughout the day so that your urine is consistently transparent and light in color. Tip: if you feel thirsty, you're already dehydrated.
Fresh Air—Ensuring that a large percentage of the air you breath is fresh, outdoor air can make a significant difference. Studies conducted by the EPA find that indoor levels of air pollutants can be 2 to 5 times higher than outdoor levels. Breathing the stale oxygen found in enclosed indoor spaces requires the body to work harder for basic function, ultimately causing fatigue.
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