7 Silent Signs You Could Have COPD and Not Know It

Updated: Apr. 24, 2020

Cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, and other symptoms could seem like a cold or allergies. Here's how to know if it's COPD.

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What is COPD?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 11 million American adults have been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis (8.7 million) or emphysema (3.4 million), both of which fall under the category of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD. The COPD Foundation has reported the illness affects as many as 24 million Americans. Smoking is the most common cause of COPD in the United States, followed by exposure to occupational toxins, and a very small percentage of people have a genetic predisposition to the disease. What exactly is COPD? It’s an inflammatory condition of the airways that results in obstruction of airflow, says Umur Hatipoglu, MD, and medical director of the Center for Comprehensive Care for COPD at the Respiratory Institute at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Don’t miss these silent signs of lung disease.

chronic cough
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COPD symptom: Chronic cough

Chronic cough is one of the most common signs of COPD. Bhaven Shah, MD, pulmonary critical care specialist at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois, says doctors define chronic bronchitis as a persistent cough lasting three months per year for at least two years. The cough results from swelling and inflammation in the airways. “The cough comes on slowly and can be a productive cough,” says Brian Stein, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Sputum, which is a mixture of saliva and mucus, is associated with a productive cough that can be common in COPD patients. “Often the persistent cough is worse in the morning, but can get worse throughout the day,” he says. Make sure know which 9 ordinary items in your home can damage your lungs.

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COPD symptom: Shortness of breath

You might not notice this symptom right away, as many first experience shortness of breath upon exertion. “As the disease progresses you can get shortness of breath from even a small activity like walking to your bathroom or climbing up the stairs, or walking to your house,” Dr. Shah says. “But, as the symptoms advance, people can even get shortness of breath while they’re resting.” Dr. Stein says some people adjust or reduce their activity in response to this, without realizing the reason for altering their routine is shortness of breath. Start eating these foods that may help you breathe better.

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COPD symptom: Wheezing

Wheezing is another common symptom of COPD. As the airways narrow, a whistling sound can be heard when people breathe, most commonly on the exhale. The audible whistling sound is known as wheezing. If you hear a whistling sound when exhaling, it could be a sign you need to see a physician to determine the cause. (Check out these 11 things about lung cancer doctors want you to know.)

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COPD symptom: Tightness in your chest

You may experience a feeling of tightness over the center of the chest. It’s not specific to the condition, but can be one of the symptoms of COPD. Chest tightness can be paired with shortness of breath or it can be a symptom by itself. “When people describe chest tightness they might feel like they can’t get a breath in,” says Dr. Stein.

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COPD symptom: Trouble sleeping

Airways expand and contract following natural circadian rhythms, Dr. Hatipoglu says. This occurs in everyone, but when the airways tighten along with circadian rhythms, it can cause COPD symptoms. Dr. Hatipoglu says the airways are smallest in diameter in the early hours of the morning. “When you have COPD, you don’t have a lot of reserve; in the morning as the airways get tighter or smaller, you may become symptomatic and that will wake you up,” he notes. Lower oxygen levels during the night might also lead to sleep disturbances. If you’re waking up with symptoms similar to those of COPD, it might be time to contact a physician. Here are the lung cancer symptoms you should never ignore.

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COPD symptom: Weight loss

Weight loss typically occurs in patients with emphysema and it’s because of the increased work of breathing, says Dr. Hatipoglu. Since those with COPD cannot blow out all the air when exhaling, they trap air in the lungs. “When you trap air, it’s as if you’re breathing on top of a full lung. Expanding the chest and going back to baseline, the resting state, becomes very difficult. That increased work of breathing can lead to weight loss,” says he says.

fatigued man

COPD symptom: Fatigue

While fatigue is associated with many conditions, it is one of many COPD symptoms, too. Dr. Stein says those actually experiencing shortness of breath upon exertion might complain of fatigue, because of the increased work it takes to breathe. If you’re feeling more tired than normal and have other symptoms, the fatigue could be associated with COPD. Try one of these 11 exercises to help build better lungs.

pulmonary function test for COPD
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How is COPD diagnosed?

COPD is diagnosed through a pulmonary function test. Also known as a spirometry test, it shows whether an obstruction is present. Pulmonary function tests measure how much air one can inhale and exhale, and how quickly one can exhale air. If you are diagnosed with COPD and still smoking, doctors say quitting smoking is one of the best things patients can do.

“As we get older our lung function declines gradually. If somebody smokes, the lung function declines much faster. If somebody is on a decline but they stop smoking, they slow the progression of the disease,” Dr. Shah says. “That is the most important treatment for COPD.” If you want to do everything in your power to prevent COPD or lung cancer, start one of these 6 smart habits to prevent lung cancer.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest