COPD: Symptoms, Risk Factors and Treatment Options

The umbrella term COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) includes Bronchitis and Emphysema. These progressive lung diseases are caused primarily from years of smoking, but can also develop due to other factors, such as genetics, chronic lung infections, breathing in second-hand smoke or being exposed to heavy pollution or harmful chemicals.

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The COPD statistics are quite alarming – more than 11 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, according to the American Lung Association. Another 12–24 million may have the condition without even knowing it. The earliest signs and symptoms, Stage One of COPD, can go totally unnoticed for years, and can often be linked to many other possible diseases and health conditions as well. Because of this, when the symptoms do appear, many people assume that they may just be out of shape or have a viral infection.

Thus, COPD all too often goes unsuspected and undetected until it’s already in a more advanced stage, which is why it’s imperative to get tested as quickly as possible if you start noticing the telltale symptoms. Below are some of the earliest symptoms of COPD that should never be ignored.


Persistent Coughing

One of the very first signs of COPD that you need to watch out for is a long-term or chronic dry cough that just won’t go away. Coughing helps to protect the airways from inhaled irritants, such as cigarette smoke. It also helps to remove phlegm (mucus) from the breathing passages. Although this is a natural response to smoke and other irritants under healthy/normal circumstances, a chronic cough is an indication that there may be something very wrong going on in your lungs that needs to get checked out as quickly as possible.

Long-Ongoing Mucus Build-Up

As mentioned previously, the coughing usually goes hand-in-hand with a second early-stage symptom: the production of a large amount of mucus or phlegm that does not dissipate. The mucus may be clear, white, yellow, or even a greenish color. In more advanced stages, the mucus may even contain traces of blood.

Your lungs produce mucus to help trap or keep inhaled irritants out. Tobacco smoke and other irritants result in the production of up to three times the normal amount of mucus in your lungs, which leads to a struggle to breathe normally.

Feeling Short Of Breath And Wheezing

Tightness in your chest, wheezing and shortness of breath is another sign that your lungs are not functioning normally. This is caused by the excessive mucus build-up and constricted airways. When this happens, it makes it harder for the lungs to function properly, leading to a lack of sufficient oxygen intake. This is no trivial matter and requires medical attention as fast as possible.

Initially, the overall feeling of breathlessness may only occur with increased physical activity, such as playing sports, running or walking up stairs. But if the disease is left untreated, it will gradually get harder to breathe, no matter the activity.

Sleeping Problems

With COPD stage 1, you will also likely struggle to fall asleep at night due to chronic interruptions in your normal breathing pattern. If you suddenly stop breathing during your sleep, your brain will jolt you awake to breathe again. This can happen many times during the course of the night, disrupting the sleep cycle. You may also snore or make gasping noises if your nose or mouth gets blocked by your pillow. However, this does not necessarily mean that you have COPD. You may have a case of Sleep Apnea, which shares a similar symptom.

Chronic Fatigue

The aforementioned shortness of breath and interrupted sleeping patterns will soon lead to chronic fatigue and an overall lack of energy during the day. Even the simplest of tasks or activities can become more and more difficult. If you’ve been struggling with fatigue lately that’s been having a detrimental effect on your ability to get things done and doesn’t get better with rest or coffee, then this may be another warning sign/symptom of COPD that needs to be addressed.

However, just like the sleeping problems, this symptom can also occur in so many other illnesses and health conditions, such as mental health disorders, hormone imbalance or stress. So, it’s important to get tested and receive a doctor’s diagnosis to determine whether you have COPD or not.

Treatment Options

Treatment options for COPD include pharmacological therapies, such as bronchodilators (which come in short-acting and long-acting forms) to open up the airways, inhaled corticosteroids to reduce inflammation, and combination inhalers that merge both functions.

For patients with severe COPD, therapies may also include oxygen therapy to maintain adequate oxygen levels in the blood, and pulmonary rehabilitation programs that combine education, exercise training, nutrition advice, and counseling.

Moreover, lifestyle changes, including smoking cessation, avoiding respiratory irritants, regular exercise, and nutritional support, play a crucial role in managing the condition. Vaccinations against influenza and pneumococcal infections are recommended to prevent respiratory infections that can exacerbate COPD symptoms. Each treatment plan is tailored to the individual’s symptoms, severity of disease, and overall health status, with a focus on enhancing lung function, managing symptoms, and preventing complications.

Diet Plays A Significant Role

A balanced diet can help in maintaining an optimal weight, as both underweight and overweight conditions can exacerbate COPD symptoms. Patients are often advised to incorporate high-fiber foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into their diet to improve lung function and digestion, which can be compromised by the effort of breathing in advanced COPD. Lean proteins from sources like poultry, fish, beans, and legumes are essential to maintain muscle strength, including the respiratory muscles. Adequate hydration is crucial, as it helps to keep the mucus thin and more manageable. Certain foods with anti-inflammatory properties, such as omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and flaxseeds, may help reduce inflammation in the lungs.

Additionally, smaller, more frequent meals can prevent the discomfort of fullness that can interfere with breathing. It’s also advisable to limit salt intake to avoid fluid retention, which can worsen breathing difficulties. Consulting with a dietitian to create a personalized nutrition plan can provide tailored advice, taking into account individual nutritional needs and preferences, to support lung health and improve quality of life for those living with COPD.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, as of yet, there is still no cure for COPD, but several medications and treatments are available to help reduce the symptoms, slow down the progression and improve daily quality of life.

Also, if you are still currently smoking cigarettes or any other smoking product, it is strongly advised that you quit this very damaging habit right away to protect yourself from getting COPD. If you already have it, then it’s a no brainer- quitting will prevent it from getting worse. Tobacco smoke is the number one leading culprit of COPD.

Lastly, if your area of work involves daily exposure to sawdust, smoke or harmful chemicals, switch jobs as quickly as you can. The longer you remain exposed to COPD inducing substances, the more at risk you will be of developing the condition.

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