COPD: What Are the Symptoms?

Medically Reviewed by Paul Boyce, MD on November 02, 2023
5 min read

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a condition that makes it hard to get enough air into your lungs. It comes from having one or more of three diseases:

When you have COPD, you have lung damage and breathing problems that get worse over time.

Asthma vs. COPD

The two diseases have a lot of the same symptoms, and it can be hard to tell which one you have. But they have different causes. And while asthma can get better with treatment, you can't fix the lung damage from COPD.

If your asthma isn't well-controlled or doesn't get better, it can lead to COPD. And you can have both at the same time. That's called asthma-COPD overlap.

Many people don’t notice any symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in the early stages. Sometimes there aren’t any. But often there are subtle early signs that you might notice if you pay attention.

Early COPD symptoms

Some of the first signs something is wrong include:

  • Shortness of breath when you're active
  • Trouble taking a deep breath.
  • A cough that doesn’t go away
  • Coughing up thick mucus (phlegm), especially in the morning
  • Wheezing or chest tightness
  • Having a lot of colds or more serious lung infections 

You may start to find that you can’t do the daily tasks of life as easily as you used to, like walking up the stairs, gardening, or bringing your groceries inside. This could be because you’ve gained weight, stopped exercising, or gotten the flu. But if there’s no obvious cause and the symptoms seem to stick around, it’s time to see your doctor.

Other symptoms

Symptoms get worse over time, and you may have serious lung damage before you even notice them, especially if you’re a smoker. You may get other symptoms like:

  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness) most or all of the time
  • Blue lips or fingernails
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Swollen feet, ankles, or legs

COPD exacerbation symptoms

With COPD, you may have periods of time when your symptoms suddenly get worse. That's called an exacerbation or a flare-up. They may happen a few times a year, and may last for a couple of days or even weeks. An exacerbation can be triggered by bad air quality; by breathing in smoke, pollen, chemicals or cold air; or by having a cold or the flu. When you're having one, you may:

  • Have more trouble breathing than usual
  • Wheeze or breathe noisily 
  • Cough more than usual
  • See a difference in the color, thickness, or amount of phlegm you cough up 
  • Feel more tired than usual
  • Have trouble sleeping

You could easily write off some COPD symptoms as just what it feels like to get older. It's not unusual to lose some of your physical fitness as you age, and you may think being tired and getting winded more easily are normal. If you smoke or used to smoke, you may think a cough is to be expected.

But if you catch it sooner, you may be able to keep COPD from getting worse. If you or someone you take care of starts to feel short of breath after normal daily activities, get it checked out, especially if you're a smoker.  

COPD is a progressive disease, which means it gradually gets worse over time. Treatment can slow down the process, but can't reverse it. 

Worsening symptoms of COPD

As time goes on, you may:

  • Start feeling short of breath when you're just sitting, maybe even waking up in the night with it
  • Have trouble with everyday tasks
  • Cough up mucus that's yellow or greenish, or even bloody
  • Feel pain in your chest
  • Get lung infections, like bronchitis or pneumonia, more often

End-stage COPD symptoms

Eventually, with COPD you may:

  • Need portable oxygen
  • Have swollen ankles from a buildup of fluid 
  • Feel tired all the time
  • Lose your appetite, or lose weight without trying
  • Become anxious or depressed
  • Become confused and forgetful
  • Have to go to the emergency room or spend the night in the hospital often
  • Not be able to work, have a social life, or do normal daily activities

You should make an appointment with your doctor if you have unexplained shortness of breath or a cough that won't go away, especially if you smoke, or used to smoke. They can do tests to help rule out or diagnose COPD.

If you're already living with COPD, let your doctor know if the medicine you've been prescribed isn't helping. These symptoms can mean that you have an infection or you're having a flare-up. Call your doctor within 24 hours if you notice:

  • You’re out of breath or coughing more than usual.
  • Being out of breath affects your daily routine.
  • You’re coughing up more gunk than normal.
  • The gunk is yellow, green, or rust-colored.
  • You have a fever over 101 F.
  • You feel dizzy or lightheaded.
  • You have new or worse swelling in your legs and feet.

Call 911 or go to the emergency room if you can't catch your breath, your lips or fingernails have turned blue, or you have an unusually fast heartbeat. Being confused or not thinking clearly is another emergency sign to watch for in someone you're taking care of.

Early signs of COPD include shortness of breath when you exercise and a wet cough that won't go away. The disease is progressive, which means symptoms get worse over time. They can also get worse suddenly if you're exposed to things like smoke or pollution. Eventually, COPD can make it hard to do even normal daily activities, and you may need portable oxygen.  

What are the early warning signs of COPD?

The first symptoms you might notice when you have COPD include shortness of breath when you exercise or work hard, and a cough that doesn't go away. You may also cough up a lot of mucus, feel tired, wheeze when you breathe, have tightness in your chest, or get a lot of colds or lung infections.

What is the life expectancy for COPD?

How long you can expect to live with COPD is different for everyone. It depends on things like your age, your overall health, how far along the disease was when you were diagnosed, and whether you're able to stop smoking. One study found that people with severe COPD lose about 8-9 years of their lives.