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a man with visible and invisible symptoms

The Invisible -vs- Visible Aspects OF COPD

COPD, much like asthma, is an invisible illness. It involves inhaling invisible substances that cause invisible changes to occur inside lungs, and sometimes cause invisible symptoms. This invisible nature can make it difficult to gain the support of people who aren’t living with it, causing us to have to explain ourselves over and over again.

Yes! This can be frustrating. So, to help explain what it’s like living with COPD, I thought it would be neat to contrast the visible aspects of COPD with the invisible.

Let us use a character named Bob.


You cannot see the 5,000 plus chemicals in the cigarette smoke in the air at his work. Nor can you see the chemicals in the air at the factory where he works. These chemicals are inhaled day after day, and they may cause changes to occur inside Bob’s body that contributes to a disease called COPD. As this is gradually happening day after day after day, you can see nothing.


You can see Bob going about his life. You can see him getting up in the morning as most others do. You can see him brushing his teeth, combing his hair, and going to work. You can see him working. You can see him playing with his kids, or working on his hobby, which so happens to be making things out of wood. He enjoys working with wood, and he enjoys making others happy by making things for them.


As his lung disease gradually progresses, he starts to feel increasingly short of breath. His symptoms are silent at this point, meaning no one but him knows they are present.  He feels short of breath, but you cannot see any signs to indicate this is happening. He feels some chest tightness, but you cannot see chest tightness. He worries, but you cannot see worry. He wonders why he is short of breath, although he usually chalks it up as just a cold. So this kind of eases his mind, and he forgets about it for a while.


One day, Bob’s symptoms get worse. He is having a COPD flare-up. His words come in short choppy sentences. As he walks he leans on things to breathe and constantly takes breaks. His chest heavily heaves up and down as he breathes. It’s quite obvious that he needs to seek help. You may take him to the emergency room, and see the doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists helping Bob. Soon, you see that he is breathing easier.


Bob is a humble man who just wants to get back to the normal routine that is his life. But he finds this is difficult. He finds when he works he has to take breaks with increased frequency. After work, he yearns to make things for his kids, but he finds that he has to slow himself down often to catch his breath. He usually tries not to let others see him struggle. He has an inhaler prescription now, and when he feels he needs it, he goes into hiding around a corner or in the bathroom.


You see that he is taking many days off of work. Sometimes he comes home from work early. He rarely finishes projects in his garage, even projects he has promised you he would complete. Sometimes you wonder if he is sick, but you also can’t help but think he is just being lazy.


Bob is not lazy. He just wants to be a normal guy. He wants to go about his normal routine. But, he is gradually realizing that he has to make changes.  He doesn’t complain about his breathing, even though he may be a little short of breath even on good COPD days. He struggles with the changes he has to make, such as seeing doctors more often, taking medicine, and avoiding cigarette smoke and the chemicals at his work. He may even feel sad.


Bob starts to see doctors with increased frequency. Bob may seek your help. He may ask you to drive him to his appointments. He may ask for your support. Since you do not have COPD, and even though you saw him have a severe flare-up earlier, he may have to remind you what it’s like. This is no knock on you. It’s normal if you do not have COPD, to forget what it’s like. So, Bob may have to remind you. He may say things like, ”I am having trouble breathing,” or “I need you to call for help.”  Even though Bob looks normal to you, he needs your support now more than ever.

What to make of this?

Bob’s goal is to live a normal, functioning life with COPD. He sees his doctors as often as he needs to, he takes his medicine as instructed by his doctors, and he does his best to avoid his COPD triggers. Making it so much easier to adjust to his new life with COPD is support from his family and friends. They understand, that even though Bob might look normal, that he may still be experiencing the invisible aspects of COPD.

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


  • TracyCarnahan
    2 years ago

    After years of working alongside my husband on the family ranch and working 30 hrs a week to boot my husband called me lazy. I worked equally hard building our house, bringing in 6 cords of wood each year for our only heat, caring for the animals running fencing on the side of a mountain and caring for the family. I slowly had to back off of some of the work and one day he called me lazy. He listened to me struggle for breath all night long, he saw how walking up and down the hills made me struggle. He still couldn’t help thinking I was lazy. That was 15 years ago and I am now well past the invisible part of this illness but the memory still cuts deep. He only said it once but I could see he thought it a few times,, even after I was on oxygen. The thing our family’s need to understand is we feel guilty. We are ashamed we can’t keep up and know we are letting our families down. Sometimes we even wonder if we aren’t just lazy no matter how many times we end up in the hospital from pushing ourselves. He’s so sorry now that he ever thought I was lazy but it still cuts very very deep.

  • Barbara Moore moderator
    9 months ago

    Hello TracyCarnahan,
    I am very saddened to read your message. I know it is hard for others to understand what is happening to us because often we do not understand ourselves. I hope that as the years pass your partner begins to understand the struggle and you can find it in your heart to forgive. Barbara (Site Moderator)

  • Rea72
    10 months ago

    I know this was written 1 year ago. I hope this message finds you in the best of health.
    As I read your story I just cryed knowing your struggles. As I live the same. Thank you for sharing.
    I’m on 6 liters of oxygen 24-7. I’m so tired of feeling fearful all the time. I think I’m coming to the end of this journey. I fear I will linger in this hell for much longer than I can take. I pray to die in my sleep & then I judge myself as a chicken looking for the easy way out.
    May God Bless You❤️

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    9 months ago

    Hi Rea72 and thanks for your post at this time. I view many of our articles as being ‘timeless’, they are always current and informative for our members, whenever they have an opportunity to read them.

    I’m sure you’re aware the author,(our own John Bottrell), used a fictional character to illustrate the ‘invisible versus visible’ aspects of COPD.
    We appreciate the challenges YOU are facing, Rea, and are here for you, should you need any support or assistance from our online community. We all understand what you’re going through and know how you feel, so you never have to feel like you’re all alone with this condition!
    We will look forward to your continued input.
    Leon (site moderator)

  • Lyn Harper, RRT moderator
    2 years ago

    TracyCarnahan, that is such a heartwrenching story. Obviously you are far from a lazy person, but I can only imagine how wounding it would be to hear that from someone we love. I’m sure your husband has regretted it many times over after witnessing first-hand what you’ve had to go through.

    Sadly, I have no doubt many in the community will be able to relate.

    Warmest Regards,
    Lyn (moderator)

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    9 months ago

    Hi TracyCarnahan and thanks for your post (from a year ago). I will underscore what both Lyn and Barbara have articulated. If you do get to read our comments, how have things in your life progressed over the last year? We would love to hear back from you. All the best, Leon (site moderator)

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