What Does COPD Feel Like?
Last updated: September 2020
I was given the asthma/COPD overlap diagnosis when I was 25 years old. But for me, the COPD part has been pretty mild, however I do have severe asthma. Being a Respiratory Therapist and working in a hospital I see many people who suffer with all stages of COPD on a daily basis. From very early in the diagnosis to the end stages. Because COPD has a wide array of symptoms I started asking more than the usual “how are you feeling today” questions.
What does living with COPD feel like?
I started asking “what does COPD feel like to you?” I started asking this specific question a couple years ago and have been compiling the answers. I have gotten so so so many different answers to this question and I wanted to share a few of them in this post because it really goes to show just how diverse of a disease COPD really is and how it effects everyone differently. I will paraphrase and then explain some of the answers I have received.
Describing the feeling of COPD symptoms
COPD feels like breathing through a small straw
This is the most common answer I hear when I ask the question. It is also the most relatable. When the inflammation occurs within the lungs and causes the airways to swell and tighten, it feels as though you are literally breathing through a straw. When I have taught respiratory therapy students and workshops on various lung diseases I have often had people stand up, jog in place for one minute and then pinch their nose shut and try to breathe through one of those small coffee stirrer straws. This is a pretty accurate way to feel how both an asthmatic and/or COPD sufferer feels when having a flare up or even on a daily basis when in advanced stages of COPD.
A fish out of water
The feeling of suffocation or having your head being held under water. Feeling smothered and not able to take a deep enough breath.
It feels like I’m wearing a corset 24/7
Chest wall pain and rib cramping are pretty common with COPD. As always if you experience any of these symptoms you will definitely want to discuss them with your doctor to rule out any of the potentially serious issues first and foremost. The chest wall and rib pain that many people with COPD experience happens as a result of the inflammation which causes the constant coughing as well as the lungs being hyperinflated.
When your body is having to work extra hard 24/7 to breathe it is going to take its toll and make you feel downright exhausted. All of your energy is going to be going to keeping your body oxygenated.
Emotional pain that comes with the loss of freedom
This is a biggie. As COPD progresses, losing freedoms that you once had can lead to depression and emotional pain. Finding a support system is of utmost importance to help keep your spirits up. Finding others who “get it” and are going through something similar can make a huge difference. Online communities (such as this one) as well as local support groups can help so much. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help.
These are just a few of the responses I have received. I would love to hear yours as well. I would also recommend talking with your doctor about what COPD feels like to you as everyone is different and may experience different symptoms with their COPD and in the different stages. Keeping that open line of communication with your healthcare team is crucial so you can ensure you receive the best care possible.
Do you know the difference between a COPD exacerbation and lung function decline?
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