Anyone can have trouble breathing once in a while. But for those who have COPD, debilitating symptoms such as shortness of breath, cough, and poor lung function can seem relentless.
If you have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), you need to know that while it can’t be cured, it can be managed. Its symptoms can be controlled. And COPD doesn’t have to keep someone from having a fulfilling and satisfying life.
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COPD is a term that describes a group of lung diseases, mainly emphysema and chronic bronchitis, that cause air-flow obstructions.
Everyone experiences a slow decline in lung function after their 20s or 30s, says Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of the Respiratory Care Department at Mount Sinai Center in New York City. “As we age, lung function slowly declines each year.”
But some people, such as those who smoke cigarettes, experience a rapid decline in lung function associated with COPD. Indeed, smoking is a major risk factor for COPD, but it is not the only one. Environmental risk factors include exposure to fumes and irritants, living with air pollution, or living in a dusty environment. And some people can inherit a genetic predisposition for developing COPD.
Recognizing COPD Symptoms
Early detection and medical treatment makes it easier to manage COPD. While early COPD may not cause noticeable symptoms, a doctor’s exam can reveal abnormal breathing and wheezing when a person exhales. Other COPD symptoms may include:
an increase or decrease in the amount of mucus or sputum, also called phlegm, that is produced in the lungs and coughed up
the presence of blood in the sputum
shortness of breath that is persistent -- often described as ‘heaviness’ or ‘air hunger’
a chronic cough present throughout the day
a general feeling of ill health
swelling of the ankles
using more pillows or sleeping in a chair instead of a bed to avoid shortness of breath
unexplained increase or decrease in weight
increasing morning headaches, dizzy spells, or restlessness
increased fatigue and lack of energy
Chronic Coughs and COPD
In the beginning, a chronic dry cough may be the only symptom of COPD, and people often don’t even notice it. Or they may ignore a symptom such as feeling breathless or mistakenly attribute it to aging or being out of shape. It’s important to remember that difficulty breathing is not a normal sign of aging. Any unusual shortness of breath should be checked by a doctor.
“Patients will tell me they’re coughing all the time,” says Schachter. “Or they complain that they can’t keep up with their friends or climb stairs.”
As a result of ignoring symptoms, many people with COPD aren’t diagnosed until the disease is advanced. At that point, it’s harder to control the symptoms. But the disease can still be managed, and following an effective treatment plan can help keep the symptoms under control.