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Canadian Med Center

Symptoms of COPD: Identifying the Telltale Signs

Friday 23 February 2024
6 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. Overview of COPD Symptoms

II. Managing COPD

III. When To See a Doctor

Surprisingly, over 50% of people with COPD remain undiagnosed, often due to the gradual onset of symptoms. [1] Recognizing the early signs of COPD is crucial as it allows for timely intervention and appropriate treatment, which can help slow the disease's progression.

In this article, we'll dive into the common symptoms of COPD in its early stages and the signs that your COPD symptoms may be flaring up. We'll also discuss strategies for managing exacerbations and when to check in with your doctor.

Overview of COPD Symptoms

Recognizing the symptoms of COPD is crucial in effectively managing the disease and slowing its progression. COPD symptoms typically develop gradually over the years and tend to worsen as time goes on. It's important to note that these symptoms can vary from person to person, and in some cases, they can become more severe, leading to what is known as a COPD exacerbation. [2]

Early Signs and Symptoms

In the early stages of COPD, symptoms may develop slowly and be so mild that they go unnoticed. Many people mistakenly attribute these symptoms to aging, lack of fitness, or even asthma. Because of this, it’s vital to identify the early signs of COPD and inform your doctor if you experience any of them because early diagnosis can prevent the disease from progressing further. [2]

Key early symptoms of COPD to be aware of include:

  • Persistent cough: A cough lasting more than eight weeks is often one of the first indications of COPD. This type of cough does not typically resolve on its own.
  • Excess mucus production: Inhaling irritants increases mucus production, leading to coughing. Prolonged exposure to irritants, such as smoking, chemical fumes, dust, pollution, and perfumes, can damage the lungs and contribute to the development of COPD.
  • Shortness of breath: Initially, shortness of breath may only occur after physical exertion, but it can worsen over time. Obstruction of the air passages makes breathing more difficult, resulting in decreased energy levels.
  • Chest infections: Individuals with COPD are more susceptible to chest infections, such as colds, the flu, and pneumonia, due to the compromised functioning of their lungs. [2]

COPD Exacerbations

COPD exacerbations cause symptoms to worsen suddenly. It’s crucial to seek prompt medical care during exacerbations, as they can escalate rapidly without intervention. Common triggers for COPD flare-ups include: [2]

  • Viral or bacterial lung infections
  • Exposure to cigarette smoke and other lung irritants [2]

Exacerbations can persist for several days or even weeks, often requiring antibiotics, oral corticosteroids, or hospitalization. As lung function declines in the later stages of COPD, exacerbations tend to increase in frequency. Each occurrence of an exacerbation leaves behind permanent lung damage. [3]

It's easy to mistake the signs of COPD exacerbations for other conditions, such as severe allergies, a severe cold, or a sinus infection. If you experience severe symptoms, you must report them to your doctor as soon as possible. [3]

Early warning signs of COPD exacerbations may include:

  • Symptoms rapidly intensifying within a matter of days or even hours
  • Increased frequency and strength of coughing
  • Sudden onset of shortness of breath
  • Difficulty performing everyday tasks, such as walking or showering
  • Spitting up dark mucus
  • Increased mucus production
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Lower than usual oxygen levels [2]

If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to consult your healthcare provider for a proper evaluation and diagnosis.

Managing COPD

a woman using an inhaler

When you have COPD, exacerbations are, unfortunately, a common occurrence that can take a toll on your health over time. With each exacerbation, you may experience a decline in lung function. However, you can take steps to reduce exacerbations and handle them properly when they do happen. [3]

Stay on Top of Your Treatment Plan

Work closely with your doctor to find the right maintenance treatment to manage your symptoms daily. Take all medications as prescribed and keep up with any breathing exercises or techniques recommended by your provider. Consistent maintenance therapy can help reduce exacerbations. [3]

If you’re having trouble keeping up with multiple inhalers, talk to your doctor about combination therapies like Trelegy Ellipta. These inhalers have a combination of different medication types that you can take together in one inhaler. [4]

Discuss Additional Treatment Options

If you continue having frequent flare-ups or are not getting adequate symptom relief from your current meds, talk to your doctor about adjusting your treatment plan. There may be additional medications that could be helpful for you. Don't resign yourself to repeated exacerbations - explore other treatment options with your provider. [3]

Avoid Triggers

Do your best to steer clear of anything that irritates your lungs and worsens symptoms. This includes smoke, air pollution, strong fumes, and other lung irritants. If possible, stay inside on high air pollution days. [3]

Follow a Healthy Lifestyle

Eat nutritious foods, exercise regularly, get enough rest, manage stress, and practice good breathing techniques. Staying as healthy as possible can help your body be more resilient when exacerbations occur.  [3]

Create a COPD Action Plan

Work with your doctor to create a written COPD action plan outlining steps to take when symptoms first worsen. This plan outlines the early signs and symptoms of flare-ups and serves as a written guide on the actions to take during an exacerbation. Remember to review your COPD action plan with your doctor annually and after experiencing a flare-up to ensure its effectiveness. [5]

Keep an Emergency Information Sheet

Even if you do everything right, you may still experience periodic flare-ups. The key is being prepared to handle them safely and effectively. Keep an emergency info sheet handy that includes: [3]

  • Your doctor's instructions for handling exacerbations
  • Emergency contact information
  • List of your medications
  • Contact information for your healthcare providers 
  • Health insurance details [3]

When To See a Doctor

a woman talking to a doctor

If you notice any symptoms of COPD or if your existing symptoms suddenly worsen, it's important to contact your doctor right away. Early diagnosis and treatment of COPD are critical to help slow the progression of the disease and improve your quality of life.

You should schedule an appointment with your doctor if you experience the following:

  • Difficulty walking or talking due to shortness of breath. If COPD makes it hard to engage in basic activities, it’s time to see your doctor.
  • Trouble sleeping because you feel short of breath. Waking up frequently during the night due to breathing problems requires medical evaluation.
  • Feeling drowsy, confused, or less alert. Changes in your mental status can signal that your COPD is worsening, and you need immediate medical care.
  • Gray or blue lips or fingernails. This can be a sign of too little oxygen in your blood, and you need to go to the emergency room or call emergency services immediately. [3]

The sooner you seek treatment for a COPD exacerbation, the less likely you are to end up in the hospital. Waiting more than 24 hours to get medical help for worsening COPD doubles the chance that you will need to be admitted to the hospital.

To learn more about COPD, visit our COPD blog for more topics.

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.