Symptoms of COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an inflammatory disorder that causes several symptoms which make breathing difficult. These include persistent cough with mucus, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Some people may also experience exacerbations, or episodes of sudden disease worsening, that may persist for several days. Patients may have several exacerbations over the course of a year, particularly in winter months.

Persistent cough

COPD may cause lungs to produce high amounts of sputum, or mucus, that may be clear, white, yellow, or greenish. As a result, patients often develop frequent coughing that does not subside.

When COPD reaches an advanced stage, some patients may cough up blood. However, this may also be a sign of other conditions, such as a chest infection or lung cancer.

Frequent wheezing

People with COPD may experience wheezing when they breathe. This symptom is mainly caused by inflammation and narrowing of the airways, both typical features of the disease.

Shortness of breath

Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, in COPD patients is caused by airflow obstruction, or blockage, which in turn is caused by airway inflammation and excessive mucus production.

Dyspnea is usually more noticeable during physical activity, but people may sometimes wake up at night feeling breathless.

Over time, patients start feeling breathless while doing their normal daily activities. Yet, this symptom can sometimes be misinterpreted as a sign of aging.

Low blood oxygen levels caused by shortness of breath, can lead some patients to develop cyanosis, or blueness, of the lips or fingernail beds.

Chest pain

Some COPD patients may find it difficult taking a deep breath due to chest pain. This may have several causes, including spasms, or cramps in the airways, loss of elasticity of the tissue that covers the lungs, and respiratory infections.

Respiratory infections

Some people with COPD also tend to have frequent respiratory viral infections, such as the flu and the common cold. Upper respiratory tract infections have been associated with more than 50% of COPD exacerbations.

Common bacteria found in COPD patients include Hemophilus influenzaMoraxella catarrhalis, and Streptococcus pneumonia. The acquisition of new strains of these bacteria has also been associated with the occurrence of COPD exacerbations.

Other symptoms

In severe cases, COPD can cause unintended weight loss, tiredness or lack of energy, weakness in lower muscles, and swelling in ankles, feet, or legs caused by fluid buildup.

Symptom variability

COPD symptoms vary with time, changing with the seasons, within a week, and even in the same day. According to several studies, the biggest increase in respiratory symptoms is experienced during the first hours of the morning, followed by the evening.

Symptoms may also differ from person to person, and not everyone has all of the typical symptoms. Many people also fail to recognize symptoms until they reach more severe stages of the disease.

This variation may even occur in the same person. At first, people may have no symptoms or mild symptoms. As the disease progresses, symptoms usually become more severe, particularly in smokers if exposure to cigarette smoking does not cease, and daily activities become increasingly difficult. However, treatment can help slow its progression.


Last updated: May 6, 2021


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