Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is one of the most common lung conditions, affecting more than 65 million people worldwide. Smoking tobacco, air pollution, and genetic predisposition are the primary risk factors for COPD. The condition can significantly shorten a person’s life but, unfortunately, may be asymptomatic in the early stages. In some cases, symptoms of COPD do not show up until the lungs are already damaged.
People with COPD usually develop a persistent cough that does not subside for weeks, months, or years. The cough is similar to a smoker’s cough, and many long-term smokers assume the symptom is simply a by-product of their habit, which can lead to a delayed diagnosis.
Another distinctive symptom of COPD is excessive mucus production. The sputum may be transparent, white, pale green, or yellowish, although yellow or green sputum can also be a sign of an infection in the lungs or airways. People with COPD are at a higher risk of developing lung infections. In some cases, this sign does not develop until the condition is more advanced. The mucus causes congestion and can result in breathing difficulties, primarily upon waking. Mucus production tends to get worse as the disease advances.
Shortness of Breath
Shortness of breath is often one of the most problematic symptoms of COPD. Most people experience the worst of this respiratory difficulty after physical exertion. Often, the symptom indicates significant inflammation and blockage of the pulmonary pathways and calls for immediate medical attention.
Tightness in Chest
Another common symptom associated with COPD is tightness in the chest, especially when inhaling, making breathing labored. Chest tightness differs from chest pain, which is not a common symptom of COPD. Individuals experiencing chest pain and tightness should see a doctor, who can test for heart and other lung or respiratory conditions.
In people with COPD, wheezing or whistling sounds while breathing is a consequence of blocked or narrowed air passageways. The wheezing usually occurs in the more advanced stages of the condition and often in the aftermath of coughing spells or physical exertion. Excessive wheezing can begin to impact speech as well as breathing.
Recurring Chest Infections
People with COPD are at an increased risk of chest infection, including bronchitis and pneumonia. Even relatively innocuous issues such as the common cold can escalate to a more serious respiratory infection in people with COPD. Recurring chest infections can also be a sign of COPD in undiagnosed individuals.
Blue Lips and Nails
Cyanosis is a serious sign of advanced COPD. The term describes a persistent coughbluish tinge to the lips and nails that indicates low levels of oxygen in the blood. This emergency event requires immediate medical attention. It is most common in advanced cases of COPD.
Impaired cognitive function can begin to affect individuals who have not responded positively to treatments for advanced COPD. The symptom develops because restricted airways prevent oxygen-rich blood, essential for healthy cognition, from reaching the brain. Affected people may experience persistent coughmental confusion, lack of concentration, and poor memory.
Restriction of the pulmonary airways means a reduction of oxygen-rich blood delivery to tissues, placing increased demand on the heart, which is responsible for pumping oxygenated blood to the rest of the body. As such, the heart begins pumping faster to meet the body’s demand for blood. A rapid heartbeat is a common sign of advanced or severe COPD.
Weight loss is also common in advanced cases of COPD. Restricted breathing means the body requires more fuel to facilitate the process. Unless people with COPD increase caloric consumption, they burn more calories than they consume, leading to weight loss.