What are the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) typically do not appear until significant damage has occurred, since COPD develops slowly over many years. Symptoms vary depending on which disease—emphysema or chronic bronchitis - is more pronounced, but generally include a shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. You may also have a chronic cough, chest tightness, wheezing and frequent respiratory infections. You may also experience periods of exacerbation or flare-ups, where symptoms rapidly intensify.

The symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are:

  • Increased breathlessness
  • Frequent coughing (with and without sputum, which is mucus usually loose in the lungs)
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest

It is important that you talk to your doctor as soon as you notice any of these symptoms.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can cause a number of problems or symptoms. The main two are difficulty breathing when moving or even when stationary, and a cough that doesn’t go away and can contain mucus. These symptoms are made worse by smoking, infections, cold foggy weather and air pollution.

COPD does more than affect the lungs. Many people also feel very tired, have trouble sleeping and lose weight because they don’t feel like eating.

The symptoms of COPD include:

  • cough
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing that comes and goes
  • increased sputum production
  • decreased ability to tolerate exercise 

You may have only one symptom or a combination of symptoms.

The symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are a cough that produces a lot of mucus, a whistling or rustling sound that may be heard when exhaling and can be prolonged and excessive wheezing with a cold or respiratory infection. The symptoms of COPD are mild at first, but they become more severe and debilitating as the disease progresses.

In the beginning, shortness of breath may only occur with physical exertion. As the disease becomes more advanced, it may occur after very modest activity. When the illness becomes very severe, shortness of breath occurs even at rest. Repeated bouts of coughing with sputum production may become disabling. Nighttime coughing may interfere with sleep. You may feel a choking sensation when lying flat. Difficulty breathing may cause sufferers to breathe through pursed lips, or to lean forward when sitting or standing in order to breathe more comfortably.

COPD also makes the heart work harder, especially the right side, which pumps blood to the lungs. The walls of the heart become thickened from the extra work needed to pump blood into the resistant lungs. The normal rhythm of the heart may be disturbed, and lack of oxygen in your blood can produce a bluish tinge to your skin, nails and lips called cyanosis. The extra strain on the right side of the heart may cause a slowdown of blood circulation. This, in turn, can cause engorgement of the large veins and liver, eventually resulting in edema, which is fluid leakage into the abdomen, legs and ankles.

Because COPD destroys the normal lung structure, you cannot exhale completely. Air is trapped in the lungs, which become hyper-inflated. This causes the chest to expand, leading to a permanent condition referred to as “barrel chest.” The accumulation of mucus and fluid in the lungs provides an ideal environment for bacteria and viruses to grow. These lung infections may become serious, further compromising breathing ability.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.