When chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) first starts to creep in, you won't even notice it. It's the kind of disease that sneaks up on you, taking years to show itself. If you're not paying close attention, the first stage can be easy to miss.
By the time clear symptoms show up, it may have already damaged your lungs. So if you have a higher risk for COPD, you'll want keep any eye out for the early signs. People who smoke now or used to are most likely to get it.
There's no cure at any stage of the disease, but the sooner you catch it, the sooner you can start treatment. That gives you the best chance of slowing it down and having a good quality of life for as long as possible.
What Are the Symptoms?
You may not have any, at least not ones that grab your attention. In fact, most people don't learn they have COPD until a later stage.
It often starts with a nagging cough. It could be dry, or you might have mucus that's clear, white, yellow, or green. You may also find that you're short of breath sometimes, especially if you push yourself.
At this stage, the symptoms may not seem like such a big deal. You may think they're just about getting older or that maybe you aren't as fit as you used to be.
But shortness of breath and a constant cough aren't things to ignore. If you have them, check with your doctor.
How Will My Doctor Test for It?
Your doctor will ask about your health history and your family's, too. You'll get a physical exam, though it often doesn't show much until the disease is more advanced.
Next, you'll need some tests. The same ones may be used during any stage of the illness:
You take a deep breath in and blow hard into a tube, which is connected to a machine called a spirometer. Then you breathe in a medicine that will help open your airways and blow into the tube again.
The test will tell you:
- How much air you breathe out, called forced vital capacity (FVC)
- How much of that air came out in the first second, called forced expiratory volume (FEV1)
Your doctor uses these results to create a third number that tells you how well your lungs are working. If the number is less than 70%, you have COPD.
Then, FEV1 tells you the stage. If it's 80% or higher, you're at stage I.
You may get several other tests to find more information, such as:
Alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAt) deficiency test. Your doctor checks your blood to look for a problem in your genes that can cause COPD. You'd likely get this test if you're under 45 and COPD runs in your family.
More lung tests. Learning things like how much air your lungs can hold and how well they take up oxygen can give more details on COPD.
6-minute walk test. It tells you how far you can walk in 6 minutes to gauge how much exercise you can safely do.
Tests to check gases in your blood. The levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood give more details on how your lungs are working.
How Is It Treated?
Your doctor may give you a drug that you breathe in called a short-acting bronchodilator, also known as a "quick-relief" or "rescue" inhaler. It relaxes the muscles in your airways to make breathing easier. You take it when you need to get relief from coughing and shortness of breath.
At any stage of COPD, your doctor will likely suggest that you:
Keep up with physical activity. Your doctor can help you figure out what's safe for you. It may be challenging, but when you keep moving, it strengthens the muscles that help you breathe. Plus, it's important for your overall health.
Quit smoking. It's the most important thing you can do to stop COPD from getting worse. It's never too late, even in advanced stages.
What Other Problems Can COPD Lead To?
When you have COPD, you're also more likely to catch a cold, flu, and similar illnesses. They can also make your COPD symptoms much worse in a hurry. You may have a hard time catching your breath, get tightness in your chest, and cough more. Call your doctor if that happens. You may need more medicine to help you through it.