COPD Symptoms

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a serious lung condition that causes a range of debilitating symptoms. COPD causes the airways to narrow, become inflamed and obstructed, leading to difficulty with breathing. 

This article will help you understand the symptoms you may suffer with COPD, as well as helping to identify potential symptoms that could be related to the disease and aid with a diagnosis. Although there’s no overall cure for COPD, an early diagnosis is crucial, as early treatment could help prevent symptoms from worsening.

Main symptoms of COPD

Figures suggest COPD affects up to 251 million people worldwide, causing breathing to gradually get worse. The main symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may occur all the time, or they might flare-up at certain points, for example in reaction to cold weather, if you’re suffering from an infection or as a result of exposure to irritants, such as smoke or fumes. Smokers can therefore be more at risk of developing COPD symptoms.

The main symptoms of COPD are: 

  • Shortness of breath, especially when engaging in activities (from housework to walking)
  • Frequent chest infections, especially in the winter 
  • Wheezing
  • A persistent chesty cough that won’t clear
  • Coughing up phlegm.

These issues can also be symptoms of other conditions, so it doesn’t necessarily mean you have COPD. However, it’s never normal to have such symptoms so, if you’re affected by any of them, do see your family doctor to discuss it. They will be able to refer you for other tests or make a diagnosis. 

Other symptoms of COPD

It’s also possible to experience other symptoms with COPD, especially when the disease becomes more severe, or you have other health issues, or comorbidities, too. 

Some examples of other less common symptoms include:

  • Tiredness and lack of energy 
  • Increasing breathlessness with any activity
  • Swollen ankles, legs and feet, which is caused by a build-up of fluid (this is known as oedema)
  • Losing weight unintentionally 
  • Experiencing chest pain
  • Coughing up blood – although this can be a sign of something else, so more tests may be required to rule out other conditions. 

If you have COPD and your symptoms worsen, or you’re unsure if something is linked to COPD or not, see a doctor for advice.

What are the early warning signs of COPD?

COPD develops slowly over many years, so it’s not unusual to be unaware you have it. You may assume that being slightly out of breath is merely due to getting older or being unfit, when in fact the cause could be COPD. The signs and symptoms are more likely to become apparent when you’re older, with most people being diagnosed when they’re in their 50s.  

There are four stages of COPD

  • Mild – where your airflow is slightly limited, but you may be unaware you have COPD
  • Moderate – where you’ll often feel short of breath when being active
  • Severe – when shortness of breath and airflow significantly worsens
  • Very severe – when you’ll have extreme breathlessness with any exertion and your normal daily life is affected. This is sometimes referred to as the end stage of COPD.

Most people seek advice from a doctor when their COPD reaches the moderate stage, as that’s when they’re likely to become more aware of the symptoms of shortness of breath. Ideally, though, the sooner you experience any changes in your health, it’s advisable to see your family doctor so any underlying conditions can be detected and treated promptly.

How can I test myself for COPD?

The only reliable way to be properly tested for and diagnosed with COPD is to see a doctor. They will be able to arrange for you to have a spirometry test, a type of breathing test that measures your lung capacity and how fast you can breathe air out. 

However, there is one simple way that you can test yourself and see if your lungs could be affected. Try the following exercise:

  • Take a full breath and hold it for one second
  • Start a stopwatch and, with your mouth open, blow out as fast and hard as you can.

Ideally you should be able to fully empty your lungs of air in four to six seconds. If it takes you longer, this is a sign that your airflow may be obstructed or limited. This might not necessarily be due to COPD, but you can follow it up by seeing a doctor for a spirometry lung test.

Can a person with COPD get better?

Sadly, a person with COPD won’t get completely better, as once you have COPD the damage to your lungs can’t be fully reversed. However, there are treatments that can help to ease your symptoms and lifestyle adjustments that you can make to manage your symptoms more appropriately. That’s one reason why it’s important to get an early diagnosis, as the sooner you know that COPD is the cause, the sooner your symptoms can be treated properly.  With an early COPD diagnosis and an appropriate treatment regime, you could maintain a good quality of life for many years to come. 



American Lung Association – Learn About COPD.

BMJ Best Practice – Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

British Lung Foundation – Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) statistics

Emphysema Foundation – Assessment of the Patient: Your Evaluation as a Possible COPD Patient. 

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MSD Manual. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

NHS – Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). 

NICE. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in adults

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