COPD Symptoms

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on July 29, 2021

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) includes one or more of three separate diseases:

They all make it harder to breathe and get worse over time.

The three key symptoms of COPD are:

  • Shortness of breath
  • A cough that doesn’t go away
  • Coughing up thick, often colored mucus (phlegm)

If you notice any combination of these symptoms, you should talk to your health care provider.

Early Symptoms

Many people don’t notice any symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in the early stages. In some cases, this may be because there aren’t any. In others, though, there are subtle early signs that you might notice if you pay attention.

For example, you might find that you simply 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 for an evaluation.

They can do a series of tests on your breathing (spirometry) that could help rule out or diagnose COPD.

Other Symptoms

Symptoms typically get worse over time, and you may have serious lung damage before you even notice them, especially if you’re a smoker. Make an appointment if you have any of these other possible signs of COPD:

  • Wheezing
  • Blue lips or fingernails
  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness) most or all of the time
  • Frequent colds
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Swollen feet, ankles, or legs
  • Having to clear your throat a lot
  • Chest tightness

When to Call a Doctor

These symptoms can mean that you have an infection or your COPD is getting worse. 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.

Call 911 or go to the emergency room if you’re still out of breath after using the medicines your doctor has prescribed for your COPD.

Show Sources


American Lung Association: “COPD Symptoms and Diagnosis,” “COPD Symptoms.” “COPD Symptoms, Causes and Risk Factors.”

Mayo Clinic: “COPD.”

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “COPD.”

Mount Sinai West: “COPD.”

Cleveland Clinic: “When to Call the Doctor About Your COPD Symptoms.”

UpToDate: “Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: Definition, clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and staging.”

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