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What Are the Signs and Symptoms of COPD?

At first, COPD may cause no symptoms or only mild symptoms. As the disease gets worse, symptoms usually become more severe. Common signs and symptoms of COPD include:

  • An ongoing cough or a cough that produces a lot of mucus (often called "smoker's cough")
  • Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
  • Wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe)
  • Chest tightness

If you have COPD, you also may have colds or the flu (influenza) often.

Not everyone who has the symptoms above has COPD. Likewise, not everyone who has COPD has these symptoms. Some of the symptoms of COPD are similar to the symptoms of other diseases and conditions. Your doctor can find out whether you have COPD.

If your symptoms are mild, you may not notice them, or you may adjust your lifestyle to make breathing easier. For example, you may take the elevator instead of the stairs.

Over time, symptoms may become severe enough to see a doctor. For example, you may get short of breath during physical exertion.

The severity of your symptoms will depend on how much lung damage you have. If you keep smoking, the damage will occur faster than if you stop smoking.

Severe COPD can cause other symptoms, such as swelling in your ankles, feet, or legs; weight loss; and lower muscle endurance.

Some severe symptoms may require treatment in a hospital. You—with the help of family members or friends, if you're unable—should seek emergency care if:

  • You're having a hard time catching your breath or talking.
  • Your lips or fingernails turn blue or gray. (This is a sign of a low oxygen level in your blood.)
  • You're not mentally alert.
  • Your heartbeat is very fast.
  • The recommended treatment for symptoms that are getting worse isn't working.
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July 31, 2013 Last Updated Icon

The NHLBI updates Health Topics articles on a biennial cycle based on a thorough review of research findings and new literature. The articles also are updated as needed if important new research is published. The date on each Health Topics article reflects when the content was originally posted or last revised.