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What Are The Symptoms of COPD?

writtenByWritten by: Sydney Garrow
Sydney Garrow

Sydney Garrow

Sydney is a contributing health writer and editor who enjoys shedding light on health topics, making information available to anyone who wants it, and ending stigmas or lack of access to care and treatment.

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reviewBy Reviewed by: Dr. Katalin Karolyi
Reviewer

Dr. Katalin Karolyi

Katalin Karolyi, M.D. earned her medical degree at the University of Debrecen. After completing her residency program in pathology at the Kenezy Hospital, she obtained a postdoctoral position at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, Orlando, Florida.

February 12, 2021 Read Time - 6 minutes

COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s a disease where breathing becomes progressively harder due to complications in your lungs.

Find out more about COPD, how to prevent it from worsening, and how to treat COPD. 

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What is COPD? 

COPD is an illness that affects your lungs. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is characterized by inflammation of your lungs, which results in obstructed airflow. It causes excessive coughing, and results in mucus, wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and other symptoms. 

The two most common conditions that contribute to COPD are: 

  • Emphysema
  • Chronic bronchitis

Both of these are most commonly caused by tobacco smoke, dust, fumes or secondhand smoke, but some people experience symptoms of COPD even without having ever smoked. This illness is incredibly common, and affects millions of Americans, and even more who don’t know they have it yet. While COPD is very common, it is also an easy condition to avoid with the correct measures taken. 

What Are The Symptoms of COPD? 

Symptoms of chronic pulmonary disease include:

  • Coughing 
  • Wheezing 
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Excessive mucus 
  • Energy deficiency
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Swelling in extremities 

Of course, you may not experience all of these symptoms of COPD, or you may have other less common symptoms.

The early warning signs of COPD are very similar to the symptoms of COPD, but usually less intense at first.

If you notice that you are experiencing any of these symptoms, and they are getting increasingly worse over time, it may be time to speak to a doctor about whether or not you are having early signs of COPD. 

What Are The Causes of COPD? 

Any kind of air pollutant or irritant over the course of a long time will cause COPD symptoms eventually. 

In the case of many people, this irritant comes in the form of long-term tobacco smoking, which damages and inflames the lungs. Other people develop symptoms of COPD from exposure to fumes, poor ventilation, second-hand smoke, or genetic predisposition. 

The two lung diseases responsible for causing symptoms of COPD include: 

  • Emphysema – This lung disease causes your air sacs called alveoli in your lungs to over expand and prevent them from forcing air out during exhaling, trapping air in. 
  • Chronic bronchitis – This condition is characterized by a chronic cough due to bronchial tubes narrowing from inflammation, and lungs producing more mucus, which blocks passageways even more. 

What Happens to Your Lungs With COPD? 

It will depend on the illness that is causing the symptoms of COPD, but essentially your lungs are restricting airflow in or out, for a variety of reasons. These could include: 

  • Inflammation of passageways
  • Excessive mucus
  • Walls of airways thickening and becoming inflamed
  • Destroyed air sacs 
  • Overexpansion of air sacs 

Stages of COPD

Doctors use the GOLD grading system to decide how severe your stage of COPD is. The stages are as follows: 

  • GOLD 1: Mild
  • GOLD 2: Moderate
  • GOLD 3: Severe
  • GOLD 4: Very severe

Doctors take into consideration your current symptoms of COPD, your spirometry results, your chances of getting worse, presence of other health problems, and your exacerbation risk. 

What is a COPD Exacerbation? 

This is essentially another term for a flareup of COPD symptoms. COPD exacerbations can last for days or weeks, and might require medications or hospitalization. 

As COPD progresses, lung function will continue to diminish, and COPD exacerbation periods will become more frequent. 

How Can Doctors Tell If You Have COPD? 

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is diagnosed with a breathing test called spirometry. If you believe that you’re beginning to show the signs of emphysema or chronic bronchitis, getting the spirometry test done is the first step to seeking treatment. Once your doctor knows what is causing your symptoms, you can start building out a treatment plan to help slow down the progression of your COPD symptoms. 

How Do You Slow The Progression of COPD? 

The best way to slow the progression of COPD is to make lifestyle changes. The biggest change you can make to slow the progression of COPD is to stop smoking. Additionally, exercising carefully, maintaining a healthy diet, avoiding other illnesses (especially those affecting the lungs), and potentially using medication to help with COPD symptoms can all help slow your progression. 

How Serious is COPD?

The symptoms of COPD are incredibly widespread. In fact, it is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. and 15 million people are currently diagnosed with COPD. 

The symptoms of COPD worsen over time, and develop slowly. Eventually, the symptoms of COPD will limit your capacity for handling daily activities. The best thing you can do, once diagnosed with emphysema or chronic bronchitis, is to start making life changes that slow down the symptoms of COPD.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a serious condition, and should be dealt with carefully. Once you recognize the symptoms of COPD, it’s important to start making life changes, seeking medical care, and moving forward with precaution so as to not further worsen your condition. 

Can COPD Be Treated? 

Again, better than any medicine you can take, quitting smoking is the first step to treating your COPD. Some other options for treating the symptoms of COPD include: 

  • Avoiding second-hand smoke exposure
  • Avoiding air pollutants and irritants
  • Medications
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation
  • Avoiding viruses that affect your lungs
  • Supplemental oxygen from a portable oxygen tank
  • Surgery (such as a lung transplant)

What Medications Are Used For COPD? 

Some common medication used to treat symptoms of decreasing lung function include: 

  • Bronchodilators. These are taken using an inhaler or nebulizer and help to open airways. 
  • Corticosteroids. This medication helps reduce inflammation, which can open your airways up more, for easier breathing. 
  • Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors. They relax airways and decrease inflammation.
  •  Some common brand names of medications used to treat symptoms of COPD include Symbicort, Ventolin, Albuterol, and Atrovent

Vaccines For Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

In addition to medication to treat symptoms, vaccines play a large role in managing COPD treatment. Because additional illnesses can worsen COPD symptoms, vaccines such as flu shots and pneumococcal vaccines are incredibly important for decreasing the chances of compromising your lungs any further. 

  • Book on our free mobile app or website.

    Our doctors operate in all 50 states and same day appointments are available every 15 minutes.

  • See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

  • Use your health insurance just like you normally would to see your doctor.

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How to Get Treatment for COPD Online

Since COPD is a progressive illness, you may find that consistent communication with a doctor, regular checkups, and access to prescriptions is necessary. With PlushCare, you can get help dealing with COPD symptoms from the comfort of your home. We provide you with access to quality doctors online, who can diagnose, treat, and prescribe medications for the symptoms of COPD and much more. Book an appointment with an online doctor today.


Read More About the Symptoms of COPD


Sources:

PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

American Academy of Family Physicians. Treatment of Stable Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: the GOLD Guidelines. Accessed on February 10, 2021 at https://www.aafp.org/afp/2013/1115/p655.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COPD. Accessed on February 10, 2021 at https://www.cdc.gov/dotw/copd/index.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is COPD? Accessed on February 10, 2021 at https://www.cdc.gov/copd/index.html

Mayo Clinic. COPD. Sign and Symptoms. Accessed on February 10, 2021 at https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/copd/symptoms-causes/syc-20353679

Mayo Clinic. Emphysema. Accessed on February 10, 2021 at https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/emphysema/symptoms-causes/syc-20355555 

Most PlushCare articles are reviewed by M.D.s, Ph.Ds, N.P.s, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Click here to learn more and meet some of the professionals behind our blog. The PlushCare blog, or any linked materials are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. For more information click here.

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