What Are COPD Symptoms?

Many people don't recognize the symptoms of COPD until later stages of the disease. Sometimes people think they are short of breath or less able to go about their normal activities because they are "just getting older." Shortness of breath can be an important symptom of lung disease.  If you experience any of these symptoms, or think you might be at risk for COPD, it is important to discuss this with your doctor.

  • Chronic cough
  • Shortness of breath while doing everyday activities (dyspnea)
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds (cyanosis)
  • Fatigue
  • Producing a lot of mucus (also called phlegm or sputum)
  • Wheezing

Remember: Don't wait for symptoms to become severe because valuable treatment time could be lost. Early detection of COPD is key to successful treatment.

Diagnosing COPD

To diagnose chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, your doctor will evaluate your symptoms, ask for your complete health history, conduct a health exam and examine test results.

Health History

Your doctor will want to know if you:

  • Smoke or have a history of smoking
  • Are exposed to secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemicals or dust
  • Have symptoms such as shortness of breath, chronic cough or lots of mucus
  • Have family members who have had COPD

Testing for COPD

Spirometry: If you are at risk for COPD or have symptoms of COPD, you should be tested through spirometry. Spirometry is a simple test of how well your lungs work. For this test, you blow air into a mouthpiece and tubing attached to a small machine. The machine measures the amount of air you blow out and how fast you can blow it.

Spirometry can detect COPD before symptoms develop. Your doctor also might use the test results to find out how severe your COPD is and to help set your treatment goals.

Other tests: Your doctor may also want you to have a chest X-ray and/or other tests, such as an arterial blood gas test, which measures the oxygen level in your blood. This test can show how well your lungs are able to move oxygen into your blood and remove carbon dioxide from your blood.

Find out if you are at risk for COPD

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Page last updated: May 14, 2020

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