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What Does COPD Feel Like?

What Does COPD Feel Like?

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. 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.

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.

Constant fatigue

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.

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.

Comments

  • btheile
    1 year ago

    My regular doctor put in my visit notes over a year ago that I was in the end stage of COPD. He never mentioned it to me or my wife. Since I also see doctor of pulmonology every six months and he has never mentioned it, only encouraging me to continue rehab and taking my meds and using my nebulizer… Today was not a good day for breathing, nose is stopped up and I’ve been on my feet quite a bit… Sometimes I forget to breathe thru my nose where my oxygen tube is… had a deviated septum most of my life, that was corrected a year before I went on oxygen. If I sit and concentrate on my breathing, I can stay above 90 saturation without oxygen. The minute I start moving around it quickly drops to much lower levels and I have to hook up again… I use 4 lpm during exercise and 6 lpm while on the treadmill. At home I keep the concentrator set on about 3.5 lpm and at night with the v-pap machine. I started oxygen use over 4 years ago. Enjoyed traveling for the first 3 years, but am now back on tanks and don’t travel any more than necessary.. Just have to keep on, keeping on….
    Bob

  • Alesandra Bevilacqua moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi Bob and sorry for the delayed response! Thank you for sharing with us. I’m sorry to hear you had a rough day breathing last week. How are you doing this week? I also thought you might like our Spotlight on traveling, where you can read other members’ experiences and tips: https://copd.net/spotlight/spotlight-traveling/ Thanks again for sharing! We’re here for you. – Alesandra (COPD.net Team)

  • Anita S
    1 year ago

    Living with COPD stage three is stressful enough but when you have other medical issues and seeing so many Doctors you tend to get somewhat depressed and anxious.

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi Anita and we hear you! It is challenging enough living with COPD and its stage 3, we know, but add a couple of other conditions and it really can be difficult to keep one’s spirits up. We’re glad to have you as a member of our online community where all of us understand what you’re going through. I thought you might gain some insight by reading this brief article from one of our contributors, who also has COPD; his name is Derek Cummings: https://copd.net/community/experts/derek-cummings/.
    Please know we are always here for you!
    All the best,
    Leon (site moderator)

  • sofidog
    1 year ago

    I have often felt self conscious about my coughing. When accompanying a friend to her chemo infusion I used a nebulizer or rescue inhaler just to prevent coughing as much as possible. My fear was that people would think I had an infection and was spreading germs!! I also cough at the beginning when Ian taking an exercise class. I do find after I have cleared my lungs, I generally stop.

  • jsielke
    1 year ago

    Thanks for your reply. Yes, I have a new primary c are doctor who is also a pulmonologist. Seems I outlived my previous 2 doctors.

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    1 year ago

    It’s our pleasure, jsielke. Wishing you the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • charli
    1 year ago

    For me, COPD feels much like your list in this article but also I feel like I’m living in a glass jar, watching the world go by. Although I can hear and see the activities and voices I can’t participate. I feel like I’m running around and around inside this jar just to do the necessary activities of daily living and keeping up with meds, cleaning and sanitizing equipment, etc. During an exacerbation, it feels like someone puts the lid on and the oxygen is almost depleted.

  • mickey22
    1 year ago

    Hi Charli…I have the same sense of house arrest. All my activities mean going out to the barn. But when I get there, I can’t perform the activity. But I should be thankful. Charli is confined to a smaller area. Charli must have a lot of meds I don’t, which is the reason for this post. Most of my problems are due to meds. My eyes have been affected and I get headaches for no reason. I’m wondering if Charli has side effects like these?

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi Charli and thanks so much for your post. Your descriptions about what COPD feels like for you are very detailed and spot on! Sometimes the challenge to living with COPD is adjusting to how we feel on a day-to-day basis. I think you’ll find sharing your thoughts and experiences here in our online community will go a long way towards helping you manage. You are always welcome here! You may also find it helpful to check out our COPD Facebook page. Many more community members are interacting on a regular daily basis in that venue. You can access it here: https://business.facebook.com/COPDDotNet/. All the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • shirley201
    1 year ago

    I am new to the group and found this overview very helpful and reassuring as my doctors general answer to questions (the last one was about the daytime fatigue that can be overwhelming ) is take more Symbicort or Prednisone, which for me isn’t helpful in respect that I want to learn “why” so I can help myself. Thank you also to Leon for replying to a question on chest wall pain.

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi again Shirley201. It was my pleasure – happy to have you as a member of our online community. In view of you mentioning your concern with daytime fatigue, I thought you might find it helpful to look over this article on COPD and fatigue: https://copd.net/living/tired-vs-copd-tired/. This is a fairly common concern for folks with COPD. Should you want more to read, just let us know. Warm regards, Leon (site moderator)

  • Alesandra Bevilacqua moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi Shirley and welcome. So glad to hear that this article was helpful and reassuring for you! Thanks for being part of our community. – Alesandra (COPD.net Team)

  • gracefulgailg56
    1 year ago

    Sometimes it’s really frustrating because when your sides or something other than your lungs hurt it’s hard to describe or point them to this illness or just feeling fatigue. There are no cut and dry answers which makes this illness so hard to handle. Sometimes emotions play hard – sometimes its just feeling lousy as your sinuses are acting up. For me I sometimes feel like I’m on a roller coaster…but I’m here — learning to cope. I have COPD and Bronchitis and Obstructive Sleep Apnea as well. Learning how to keep them all in one basket can be a challenge. This group helps me cope with some of these effects and challenges.

  • Allyson.Ellis moderator
    1 year ago

    gracefulgailg56, I am so glad this group is helpful to you in processing and coping with the challenges of living with COPD. Managing multiple chronic conditions can be such a struggle! Have you and your medical team found treatments that are helping you feel your best? It is a good observation that COPD does not have easy cut and dry answers as it is such an individualized disease. There are common threads that run through every person’s experience, but what each person is capable of, what treatments help and how the disease manifests and progresses is unique to each person. Thank you for sharing and being part of the community! ~Allyson (COPD.net team)

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi gracefulgailg56 and thanks for your recent post. It’s good to hear the medication is helping you. We have an entire community that understands that “meh” feeling, so rest assured, you are not alone! The fact that you can articulate you are better than you were two years ago, is also gratifying to hear. In general, you do sound like you’re improving so I would suggest you keep at it and be patient. Progress will come. Warm regards, Leon (site moderator)

  • gracefulgailg56
    1 year ago

    The medications that I am on is helping – some days just getting past feeling like “Meh” is hard. I’m better than I was over two years ago but still have a long way to go. Sometimes hard to express what I need to tell them. As for the fatigue with the OSA under control has improved. With the weather — I’ve just felt down. Maybe I’m just being too hard on me.

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