What are the signs and symptoms of COPD?

What are the signs and symptoms of COPD?

Initial symptoms of COPD

Many dismiss the first signs of COPD as they can be mild and similar to that of the common cold or even flu. Early signs include:

  • A mild (but recurrent) cough
  • A feeling of needing to clear your throat (especially first thing in the morning)
  • Occasional shortness of breath (particularly during or after exercise activity)

General signs and symptoms of COPD

A typical reaction to persistent early signs and flags to your doctor are subtle change in habits. These can include avoidance behaviour when it comes to taking the stairs or reducing physical activity (mild exercise).

COPD symptoms progressively worsen and as such, a person finds it increasingly difficult to ignore physical signs. Damage to the lungs typically causes:

  • Noisy breathing and wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Chronic cough (with or without mucus / sputum)
  • Frequent respiratory infections, such as colds and flu
  • Lethargy and an increasing lack of energy

Progressed COPD symptoms

Latter stage symptoms of COPD can include:

  • Swelling of the ankles, feet and legs
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss 

Simple daily things such as getting dressed or preparing a meal can start to become laborious tasks. It becomes increasingly difficult to eat comfortably or exercise. A person becomes increasingly tired and lethargic as breathing takes up more and more of their energy.

It is not uncommon for a COPD sufferer to lose weight and become weaker, or experience intense flare-ups of general symptoms. Flare-ups are known as COPD exacerbation and can range from mild to severe (life-threatening). As the condition progresses, flare-ups will worsen each time they are experienced and persist for several days at a time.

Young woman breathing through an inhaler mask in the emergency room

Signs of a COPD emergency

Red flags that will signal the need for immediate medical care include:

  • Cyanosis (grey or blue fingernails and lips)
  • Inability to talk
  • Altered mental state – confusion
  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • A racing heartbeat
  • Inability to breathe properly
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