COPD Symptoms

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2021

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may cause different symptoms for different people. A person’s symptoms will also likely change as the disease progresses. Some symptoms can also serve as a warning sign of a COPD exacerbation, or flare-up.1

What are early COPD symptoms?

Early COPD can be hard to detect. Some people may just think the symptoms are a normal part of aging. This can sometimes lead to a delay in getting a COPD diagnosis until the disease has progressed further.2

Early COPD symptoms include:1,2

  • A persistent cough that lasts for weeks or months
  • Increased mucus that causes coughing or the need to clear the throat
  • Shortness of breath or feeling out of breath
  • Wheezing, which is a high-pitched whistling sound while breathing in or out
  • Chest tightness, with a feeling of pressure in or around the chest

Not everyone will have each of these symptoms. People also may not experience these symptoms all the time. Or, someone might alternate between which symptoms they experience. They may also be more obvious during activities like exercising.2,3

If you regularly have these symptoms, you may want to reach out to your doctor. They can use tests to measure your breathing and find out if COPD is the cause of the symptoms.1,2

What symptoms develop as COPD progresses?

As COPD progresses, it usually causes more irreversible lung damage. This can lead to worse symptoms. COPD does not have a cure yet, and treatment is aimed around controlling symptoms. A good treatment plan may be able to help reduce symptoms. But as the disease progresses, symptoms may happen more often and may slowly get worse over time.1,2

New symptoms may also start to appear as the disease progresses, such as:1-3

  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds
  • Headaches, especially at morning

It is important to keep track of new symptoms you may develop over time and tell your doctor about these changes.

What are severe symptoms of COPD?

If you have COPD, some symptoms can call for immediate medical attention. Contact your doctor or emergency services right away if someone with COPD is showing these symptoms:4

  • Feeling confused
  • Slurring speech
  • Excess sleepiness
  • Difficulty catching breath or talking

These symptoms may be a sign of high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. This means that the lungs are not working correctly, usually to the point of needing medical attention.4

Symptoms of a COPD exacerbation

A COPD exacerbation happens when someone’s COPD symptoms get worse suddenly. An exacerbation can also be called a COPD flare-up or attack.4

Respiratory infections are the most common cause of COPD flare-ups. Flare-ups can also be caused by air pollution or other kinds of irritants in the air. Sometimes, flare-ups can even happen for no known reason.4

Coughing, breathlessness, or wheezing much more than normal can be signs of a flare-up. Other key symptoms of a flare-up include:4

  • Sudden increase in mucus production
  • Change in mucus color
  • Feeling very tired
  • Feeling confused
  • Fever

It is important to start treating a flare-up right away. This reduces the damage and risk from the flare-up. Some flare-ups can be treated at home, but sometimes they require hospital treatment. Talk with your doctor ahead of time about steps you should take in the case of a flare-up. Having a plan in place can help manage the stress and uncertainty of a flare-up.4

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