Are My Breathing Problems a Sign of COPD?

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A reader asks:

I'm concerned. I quit smoking 3 months ago and still have trouble breathing. I get winded easily, walking up a flight of stairs leaves me breathless. I thought my breathing was going to improve when I quit smoking, but it doesn't seem to be going that way. Do I have COPD?

COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) is blanket term that covers a couple of respiratory conditions. They are:

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is a condition in which the bronchial tubes in the lungs become chronically inflamed due to an irritant.  For smokers, that irritant is cigarette smoke. This inflammation leads to increased mucus production, producing a chronic cough. And because the airways are constricted, normal breathing can become difficult.


Continued exposure to cigarette smoke or other lung irritants over time will destroy the delicate structure of our lungs by breaking down the walls between air sacs (alveoli). This damage results in fewer, larger air sacs, which spells trouble for lung function.  The lung's ability to properly process the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between blood and the air we breathe relies on the surface area of the alveoli. Large sacs mean less surface area and less usable oxygen.  That translates to feelings of breathlessness for the person with emphysema.


Damage from emphysema is irreversible, but if caught early and smoking ceases, further damage can sometimes be halted.

Symptoms of COPD:

  • cough
  • sputum (mucus) production
  • shortness of breath, especially with exercise
  • wheezing(a whistling or rattle type noise) when you breathe in
  • tightness in the chest

If you have any of the symptoms listed above, it's time to see your doctor.

The earlier COPD is diagnosed and treated, the better your chances are for a positive outcome. Your doctor will be able to assess the condition of your lungs with a pulmonary function test.

Don't be discouraged.

While smoking cessation may not return your lung function to 100% of what it was before you started smoking, it will improve your breathing and the way you feel overall.  On the flip side, if you go back to smoking, it's certain that the condition of your lungs will worsen over time. 

And don't forget - you also greatly reduce your risk of other smoking-related illnesses when you quit smoking, most of them life-threatening.

Many people with COPD live long and productive, comfortable lives after quitting tobacco, so stick with your quit program - you're on the right track. Your lungs are thanking you for not abusing them any longer!

More reading:  5 Reasons Exercise Can Improve COPD Symptoms


National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. COPD. Accessed August, 2015.

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