COPD Symptoms

People living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may have different kinds of symptoms. Some symptoms are early signs of COPD. As the disease progresses, people with COPD may start to have more symptoms. Symptoms may slowly get worse, and start to happen more often.

Some symptoms can be signs that a person is having an exacerbation – a COPD attack. Other kinds of symptoms are “severe”, because they are signs of very serious problems that need treatment right away.

What are the initial symptoms of COPD?

At first, many people who have COPD do not even know that they have it. This is because they might not notice any symptoms in the early stages. But as the disease gets worse, they may develop symptoms such as1:

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

These symptoms might not happen every day. The person might only have some of the symptoms, some of the time. For instance, some symptoms might only happen during exercise or activity. But if they happen regularly, a healthcare provider may carry out tests to measure the person’s breathing and find out if COPD is the cause of the symptoms.

What symptoms develop as the disease progresses?

As COPD gets worse, a person’s symptoms usually start to get worse too. The symptoms may happen more often and new symptoms may appear. However, getting the right kinds of treatments can help to slow down this process.

Symptoms that a person with COPD has regularly, or even every day, are called symptoms of “stable disease.” This means that the patient’s COPD symptoms are being managed as well as they can, and the disease is under control.1

During stable disease, the person may to continue to have the first symptoms of COPD that are listed above. The symptoms may happen more often, and may slowly get worse over time.

New symptoms may also start to appear as the disease progresses1:

  • Swelling in ankles, legs, and feet
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Lower muscle endurance
  • Weight loss
  • Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds
  • Morning headaches

These symptoms usually start happening slowly over time. People with COPD may not even notice them at first. However, they should let their healthcare providers know when they do notice any new symptoms.

What are symptoms of an acute exacerbation (flare up)?

An acute exacerbation is also called a COPD “flare-up” or attack. One of the signs of a flare-up is that a person’s day-to-day COPD symptoms get much worse all of a sudden.

Respiratory infections are a very common cause of COPD flare-ups. Flare-ups can also be caused by bad air pollution or other kinds of irritants in the air. Sometimes, flare-ups can even happen for no known reason.2

Coughing, breathlessness, or wheezing that worsen very quickly can be signs of a flare-up. Other key symptoms of a flare-up are2:

  • Sudden increase in mucus
  • Change in mucus color
  • Fever

It is important to start treating a flare-up right away. This can keep the damage from the flare-up from being as harmful as it might be. Sometimes the flare-up can be treated at home, but sometimes it requires hospital treatment.

What are severe symptoms of COPD?

People who have severe symptoms of COPD need to contact a healthcare provider or emergency services right away. Severe symptoms include3:

  • Confusion
  • Excess sleepiness
  • Difficulty catching breath/talking
  • Slowed mental functioning
  • Rapid heartbeat

These symptoms can be a sign that the patient is having a very serious flare-up or maybe even respiratory failure. The patient will usually need oxygen therapy to treat the symptoms.

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Written by: Anna Nicholson | Last reviewed: July 2015.