At first, COPD may cause no symptoms or only mild symptoms. As the disease gets worse, symptoms usually become more serious. Sometimes your symptoms may suddenly get worse – an event known as a flare-up or an exacerbation – because of something in your environment or an infection in your body. These are called triggers.
Common symptoms of COPD include:
- An ongoing cough or a cough that produces a lot of mucus, sometimes called smoker’s cough. This is often the first symptom of COPD.
- Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity. You may feel like breathing takes more effort or that you are gasping for air.
- Wheezing or a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe
- Chest tightness or heaviness
Not everyone who has these symptoms has COPD. Likewise, not everyone with COPD has these symptoms. Some of the symptoms of COPD appear the same as the symptoms of other diseases and conditions. Your doctor can determine whether you have COPD. You may also have additional conditions that need to be diagnosed and treated. It is very common for people with COPD to have other conditions, including heart diseases, in addition to their 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, your symptoms may become more severe. For example, you may become short of breath during physical work.
Severe COPD can cause other symptoms, such as tiredness, lack of appetite, loss of weight and muscle, anxiety, and depression.
COPD weakens your lungs, making it harder for your body to fight off colds or protect itself from smoke or air pollution damage. Over time, you may notice your symptoms get worse because of certain triggers, such as smells, cold air, or poor air quality. Or your symptoms may get worse because of a cold, flu, or lung infection. This sudden worsening of symptoms is called a flare-up or an exacerbation.
During a flare-up, you may have a much harder time catching your breath. You may also have chest tightness, more coughing, changes in the color or amount of your sputum (spit), and a fever.
Call your doctor right away if your symptoms worsen suddenly. They may prescribe antibiotics to treat an infection, along with other medicines, such as bronchodilators and inhaled or oral steroids, to help you breathe. Some severe symptoms may require treatment in a hospital.
How serious a flare-up is depends on the amount of lung damage you have. If you keep smoking, the damage will occur faster than if you stop smoking. Take steps to keep yourself healthy to help prevent a flare-up.
When to call the doctor
Don’t wait for your symptoms to become serious. As soon as you notice symptoms of COPD in yourself or a loved one, make an appointment to see a doctor.
A flare-up may require treatment in a hospital. You — or, if you are unable, your family members or friends — should call 9-1-1 if you are experiencing unusual events:
- You are having a hard time catching your breath or talking.
- Your lips or fingernails have turned blue or gray, a sign of a low oxygen level in your blood.
- People around you notice that you are not mentally alert.
- Your heartbeat is very fast.
- The recommended treatment for your symptoms is not working.