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Get to know the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: Early diagnosis can improve daily living

A photo of a man playing catch with his grandsonDo you sometimes wheeze or stop to catch your breath when walking up stairs? Perhaps you get tired while grocery shopping or when walking around the mall? Maybe you have a cough or a cold that just won't go away. These seemingly simple interruptions to your daily life could be a sign of a serious disease called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. COPD — which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis — is a serious lung disease that over time makes it hard to breathe. In people who have COPD, their airways, the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs, are partially blocked.

People often ignore their symptoms, passing them off as normal signs of aging. In fact, COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Twelve million Americans are currently diagnosed with COPD, while an additional 12 million Americans may have the disease and remain undiagnosed. COPD affects 1 in 5 people over age 45 and occurs most frequently in people age 40 and older with a history of smoking. Current and former smokers are at risk.

Smoking is the most common cause of COPD, accounting for as many as 9 out of 10 COPD-related deaths — but smoking is not the only cause. As many as 1 out of 6 people with COPD have never smoked. Heavy or long-term exposure to secondhand smoke or other air pollutants also may contribute. Environmental exposure also can be a factor. People who have had long-term exposure to things that can irritate the lungs, such as certain chemicals, dust, or fumes in the workplace, can develop COPD.

In some people, COPD is caused by a genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin, or AAT, deficiency.

"Recognizing the signs and symptoms of COPD and your own risk factors is an important first step. But it must not stop there. COPD can be treated," said James P. Kiley, Ph.D., director, Division of Lung Diseases, at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. "It's critical that people talk to a doctor or health care provider if they are experiencing symptoms. The earlier a person receives proper treatment, the better their chances to improve quality of life."

Schedule a visit with the doctor or health care provider if you or a loved one is experiencing:

  • Constant coughing
  • Shortness of breath while doing everyday activities
  • Excess sputum production
  • Feeling like you can't breathe
  • Not being able to take a deep breath
  • Wheezing

COPD is diagnosed with a simple breathing test called spirometry. It's quick and painless — and worth it.

You can find out more by visiting This educational web site is part of a COPD awareness program from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health.


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