What is fatigue?

Fatigue describes the feeling of having very low energy for everyday activities. Fatigue is also called tiredness. It can mean that a person’s stamina is low as well. This means that the person might be able to start a physical activity, but is not able to keep going for very long.1

There are several ways that chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can make a person tired or fatigued. However, it is also possible for someone with COPD to have tiredness that is the symptom of some other condition. Therefore, it is important for patients to work with their healthcare providers to find out if the tiredness is the result of COPD or some other cause.

What causes fatigue for people with COPD?

One of the main reasons that people with COPD may feel tired or fatigued is because the damage in their lungs keeps them from having enough oxygen in their blood. The lungs contain millions of tiny air sacs. The walls of those air sacs are the place where the body absorbs oxygen from the air we breathe into the bloodstream. The body needs this oxygen to produce energy for all of its functions.

In people with emphysema, many of the walls of the air sacs are damaged or destroyed over time. This causes the tiny air sacs to combine into a smaller number of larger air sacs with fewer air sac walls. Because they do not have as many air sac walls to absorb oxygen, they do not have enough oxygen in their blood. This is a reason that people with emphysema often have low energy and may feel more tired than usual.

People with chronic bronchitis have airways that are irritated and swollen. They also have too much mucus in their airways. Both of these problems cause the airways to become blocked. This means that not enough air can pass through to the lung’s air sacs where oxygen is absorbed. This lack of oxygen can cause the person to feel tired and fatigued.

People with COPD may also feel tired because they feel breathless. This is another effect of the lung damage caused by emphysema. Because the body has to use extra energy in order to empty the lungs completely, it can cause an increase in tiredness.

Another reason that people with COPD may feel tired during the day is because they are not sleeping very well during the night. More than half of COPD patients say that they have problems with sleeping. This can be caused by:

  • Waking during the night from coughing or breathlessness
  • Certain types of medicines for COPD
  • Feeling anxious or depressed
  • The body not absorbing enough oxygen during the night

Is fatigue a common symptom of COPD?

It is quite common for people with COPD to feel tired and fatigued. But feeling much more tired than usual can also be a symptom of a respiratory infection, such as the flu or pneumonia.

Can fatigue be treated?

People with COPD often experience a “cycle” of tiredness. Because they feel tired, they do not feel like exercising or doing other physical activities. However, exercising and being active is a key part of providing the body with the energy it needs. So by not being active due to tiredness, they actually become even more tired.

For this reason, COPD patients need to try to follow an exercise routine. Exercise specialists can help design a program that will benefit the patient the most. Pulmonary rehabilitation can also teach patients ways of breathing that can make it easier to exercise and do other physical activities.

For some patients, oxygen therapy can help to treat tiredness and shortness of breath. This involves providing the body with the extra oxygen it needs to function well. The oxygen is delivered through a tube and into the lungs through a mask over the nose and mouth or a small tube in the nostrils.

COPD patients should contact their healthcare provider if they have new or increased symptoms of tiredness, or tiredness that does not go away. It can be helpful to try and keep track of the details about the symptom, for instance:

  • When did the tiredness start?
  • How long does it last?
  • Have you felt this level of tiredness before?
  • Have you started any new medications, routines, or activities?

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