COPD Symptoms

Understanding COPD Symptoms: The First Step in Managing COPD

COPD symptoms range from mild to very severe, depending upon how advanced the disease. COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It is a lung disease that is characterized by airflow limitation into and out of the lungs that is not fully reversible. The disease is caused primarily by long-term, cumulative exposure to airway irritants, such as smoking, secondhand smoke, air pollution or occupational exposure.

One of the most important aspects of managing the disease is early recognition of symptoms. This often leads to earlier diagnosis and earlier COPD treatment, which may improve your prognosis. That said, if any of the following COPD symptoms sound familiar, contact your health care provider for further evaluation:


heliox reduces shortness of breath copd
Heliox Helps Reduce Shortness of Breath in COPD. Photo c Leigh Schindler/

Dyspnea, the hallmark symptom of COPD, is the medical term for shortness of breath. Many patients describe it as a sensation that requires an increased effort to breathe, gasping or difficult, labored breathing. Initially, a patient may experience dyspnea only when they exert themselves. As the disease progresses, it may occur even while resting. As a symptom, it is the most anxiety-producing, disabling feature of the disease.

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Chronic cough

Smoker's Cough
Coughing: A Common Symptom of Chronic Bronchitis. David Freund/

A chronic cough in COPD is one that is long-term and doesn't seem to go away. It is often the initial symptom of the disease yet, the one that gets overlooked the most because patients attribute it to smoking or other environmental irritants. Patients can have a chronic cough that is productive, meaning it produces mucus, or it can be non-productive, where no mucus is produced. Initially, the cough may be intermittent, but as the disease progresses, it may be present every day, throughout the day.

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Sputum production

Sputum, also called mucus or phlegm, is a protective substance produced by the lungs to aid in the trapping and removal of foreign particles. It is expelled by coughing or clearing of the throat. Patients with COPD usually produce small amounts of tenacious sputum when they cough. A copious amount of thick sputum is often associated with a bacterial lung infection, which can exacerbate COPD symptoms. The color and consistency of sputum may change when a bacterial infection is present.

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Wheezing and Chest Tightness

Chest X-Ray
Chest X-Ray. Photo courtesy of Getty Images, user Ian Waldi

Wheezing is often described as a whistling sound heard during inhalation and/or exhalation. It is caused by a narrowing or blockage of the airways. Wheezing may, or may not be, accompanied by abnormal sounds heard with a stethoscope. Tightness in the chest is often described as a feeling of pressure within the chest walls that makes automatic breathing difficult. Chest tightness may be present when there is an infection in the lungs and it may make deep breathing painful causing respirations to be short and shallow. It is important to note that an absence of these symptoms does not exclude, or confirm, a diagnosis of COPD.

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Reducing Stress
Reducing Stress. Photo courtesy of Getty Images, user GSO Images

Different than ordinary tiredness, fatigue is a symptom that is often poorly understood and many times underreported in COPD as the focus tends to fall on more recognizable symptoms like dyspnea and chronic cough. But, because fatigue is nearly 3 times greater in those who have lung disease than in healthy people, it is an important symptom to recognize.

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Anorexia and Weight Loss

Malnutrition. Photo Courtesy of, user Ruta

Anorexia and weight loss are common problems in COPD, often occurring in severe and very severe cases of disease. When not addressed, these symptoms can lead to malnutrition, a serious condition that can also be life-threatening. Anorexia and weight loss are symptoms that warrant further investigation, as they may also indicate that other diseases are present, such as lung cancer or pulmonary tuberculosis.

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Anxiety and Depression

The emotional aspects of COPD, especially anxiety and depression, are often overlooked. These symptoms are clinically relevant however, because they increase the risk of COPD exacerbation and a poorer health status overall. Medications and other non-pharmacological treatments are available that can alleviate the anxiety and depression in COPD, sometimes completely. If you suffer from either symptom, or both, talk to your health care provider about your treatment options.

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Last Word About COPD Symptoms

COPD Triggers
COPD Triggers. Photo courtesy of Getty Images, user Paul Burns

According to the Global Initiative for Obstructive Lung Disease, the hallmark symptoms of COPD are progressively worsening dyspnea, chronic cough and sputum production. However, cough and sputum production may be present long before airflow limitation, one of the primary characteristics of COPD, develops. In contrast, airflow limitation can develop without chronic cough and sputum production. If you notice that you have any of the COPD symptoms mentioned here, and you have a history of exposure to COPD risk factors or a family history of COPD, it is important to be further evaluated by your healthcare provider.

Still have questions about COPD symptoms? Answer the following, COPD self-assessment questionnaire.


Global Strategies for the Diagnosis, Management and Prevention of Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. The Global Initiative for Obstructive Lung Disease. Revised 2011.

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