Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a long-term lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. A leading cause of disability and death in the United States, more than 12.5 million people have been diagnosed, and millions more may have the disease without even knowing it. While there is no cure, knowing COPD’s early warning signs can lead to earlier treatment and may prevent its progression.
The American Lung Association, funded with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is sharing the following insights to help Americans recognize the warning signs of COPD and take action:
Early Warning Signs of COPD
Not everyone has the same COPD symptoms, but some of the more common early warning signs and symptoms may include shortness of breath, a cough that may bring up mucus or phlegm, chest tightness, fatigue and reoccurring lung infections. People may think these symptoms are because of aging, smoking or being out of shape and become less active to avoid experiencing them. These signs and symptoms shouldn’t be ignored. Speak with your healthcare provider if you experience any of these symptoms and discuss any activities you are avoiding due to breathing difficulties.
Risk Factors and Diagnosis
Anyone can develop COPD, but people aged 40 or older and those who smoke or used to smoke are at higher risk. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD, however 1 in 4 people with COPD never smoked cigarettes. Secondhand smoke, air pollution, workplace exposures to dust, fumes and chemicals, and a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD) are also causes and risk factors for COPD.
People are often diagnosed at later stages of COPD when the disease has progressed because they delayed sharing their early symptoms with their healthcare provider. Everyone with risk factors and those experiencing early warning signs should talk to their healthcare provider about any breathing issues. It’s especially important for women to do so. Because COPD has been historically thought of as a “man’s disease” or an “old person’s disease,” women are sometimes misdiagnosed or receive a delayed diagnosis. But overall, more women are affected by COPD than men and the death rate is higher in women. In addition, women tend to develop the disease at a younger age.
To diagnose COPD, the healthcare provider will evaluate symptoms, gather a complete health history, conduct a health exam and perform a pulmonary function test called spirometry. The results of the spirometry test can determine if you have COPD.
In addition to treatment, certain lifestyle changes may make a difference, as patients living with COPD know firsthand. After being diagnosed with stage 2 COPD in the wake of a COVID-19 infection, Bob F. partnered with his doctor and started monitoring his breathing at home and leaned into exercise. His hard work has paid off, with his last pulmonary function test showing that the disease has not progressed, and he is in better overall shape than before.
“Most of the advice you should follow is no different than what doctors tell us all. Eat right, exercise, sleep, drink plenty of water, manage your weight and don’t smoke. If you do these things, you may slow the progression of your COPD,” says Bob.
But you shouldn’t wait until a COPD diagnosis to make these changes. Lifestyle changes like quitting smoking, avoiding secondhand smoke and reducing your exposure to air pollution may reduce your risk for developing COPD. If you are experiencing shortness of breath or other respiratory symptoms, do not delay talking to your healthcare provider about your symptoms or COPD risk factors. For more information about COPD, visit Lung.org/COPD.