Signs and Symptoms of COPD

Signs and Symptoms of COPD

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a form of chronic inflammatory lung disease most commonly caused by smoking.

The term refers to a group of lung conditions that result in breathing problems, including emphysema (damage to the air sacs in the lungs as the result of exposure to harmful substances found in cigarette smoke and other irritants) and chronic bronchitis (long-term inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes which carry air to the lungs).

COPD leads to an obstructed airflow from the lungs which gradually worsens over time. In the early stages, many people do not realise they have the condition but as it develops it can limit their day-to-day life. There is no cure for COPD, however there are treatments that can slow its progress and help to manage the symptoms.

Symptoms of COPD

The symptoms of COPD tend to develop when someone is in their 40s and 50s. Common signs of the disease include:

  • Increasing breathlessness. At first this may occur during physical activity but as the condition worsens it is common to wake up feeling breathless.
  • Tightness in the chest.
  • A persistent chesty cough that produces phlegm that may be clear, white, yellow or greenish.
  • Having to clear your throat repeatedly, particularly in the morning.
  • Frequent respiratory infections.
  • Flare up of symptoms during cold weather.

In the advanced stages there may be additional symptoms such as chest pain, swollen ankles due to fluid build-up, blueness of the lips or fingernails, fatigue and weight loss.

Causes of COPD

COPD produces symptoms in around 20-30% of chronic smokers, however many long-term smokers will experience reduced lung function. This is because the bronchial tubes and air sacs in your lungs lose their natural elasticity when they become diseased, resulting in them over-expanding and trapping some air within your lungs when you exhale.

Long-term cigarette use is a primary cause although not every smoker develops COPD. Experts believe that other factors play a role including genetics. Passive smokers are also susceptible to COPD, as are people who are exposed to high levels of dust, fumes or air pollution.

Emphysema, which is one of the diseases linked to COPD, leads to destruction of the fragile walls of the alveoli which results in the small airways collapsing.

Chronic bronchitis leads to inflammation and narrowing of the bronchial tubes and the production of mucus in the lungs. The chronic cough associated with bronchitis is the result of trying to clear your airways.

In a very small number of cases – around 1% – a genetic disorder called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is the cause. This leads to low levels of a protein that is secreted into the bloodstream by the helps protect the lungs.

You are most likely to develop COPD if you:

  • Have been a long-term smoker or have been regularly exposed to secondhand smoke.
  • Are exposed to harmful dust and chemicals in the workplace.
  • Have been regularly exposed to fumes from burning fuels for heating or cooking.
  • Have a chronic inflammatory disease of the airway – such as asthma – and smoke.
  • Are over the age of 40.
  • Have certain genetic factors that make you more susceptible.

Risk of other diseases

If you have COPD you are more likely to develop other potentially serious conditions, such as:

  • Pneumonia and other respiratory infections
  • Lung cancer
  • Heart disease and heart attack
  • Pulmonary hypertension, which is high blood pressure in the lung arteries
  • Depression, which can be exacerbated by living with a life-limiting condition

Diagnosis and Treatment of COPD

It is important to get an early diagnosis of COPD as there are a number of effective treatments that can help to control the symptoms and reduce the risk of complications.

A number of diagnostic tests may be used including lung function tests, CT scans and arterial blood gas analysis.

Among the treatments that may be offered are bronchodilators (normally in the form of an inhaler) and corticosteroid medications.

Talk to us if you require support or information about your condition.