Early Warning Signs of COPD

Don't delay talking to your healthcare provider about respiratory symptoms—early detection may improve your quality of life.

There are over 11 million people in America diagnosed with COPD however millions more are living with COPD but do not know it, yet. There is no cure for COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, but it is often manageable and treatable. 

Early diagnosis of COPD means treatment can begin sooner which may prevent further lung function loss. Talking to your healthcare provider about your symptoms and risk factors is the first step toward diagnosis.

Hear Mary Lou’s story about early warning signs of COPD and getting diagnosed.

Am I at Risk for COPD?

Anyone can develop COPD; but people aged 40 or older, current or former smokers have a higher risk of developing the disease.

1 in 4 people who develop COPD never smoked. Secondhand smoke, air pollution, workplace exposures to dust, fumes and chemicals, and a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD) are also causes and risk factors for COPD.

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Could It Be COPD? Questionnaire

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a major cause of illness, yet many people do not know they have it.

Answer these questions to find out if you should talk to your healthcare provider about being tested for COPD.

Do you cough several times most days?

Please confirm.

A frequent or chronic cough is a sign of COPD. Other examples of signs and symptoms include tiredness or fatigue, chest tightness, shortness of breath and/or frequent lung infections.

Do you bring up phlegm or mucus most days?

Please confirm.

Bringing up sputum (also called mucus or phlegm) is a sign of COPD. Other examples of signs and symptoms include tiredness or fatigue, chest tightness, shortness of breath and/or frequent lung infections.

Do you get out of breath more easily than others your age?

Please confirm.

People who get out of breath more easily compared to others their age may be experiencing a sign of COPD.

Are you older than 40 years?

Please confirm.

COPD is more common in people who are over 40 years old however if you are experiencing other symptoms of COPD, you should talk to your healthcare provider.

Are you a current smoker or an ex-smoker?

Please confirm.

Some examples of risk factors include current or past tobacco use, exposure to secondhand smoke, air pollution, family history of COPD, and workplace exposures to dust, chemicals and fumes.

Results

Since you answered yes to three or more of these questions, ask your doctor if you should get evaluated for COPD. Your doctor will review your symptoms and risk factors, conduct a physical exam and order a lung function test. A lung function test is required diagnose COPD.
Finding COPD early gives the best chance to prevent further lung damage. Treatments are available to help people at all stages of disease feel better and live a more active life.
Since you answered yes to two or less questions, you might not need to be evaluated for COPD. However, it is important to speak with your healthcare provider about any respiratory symptoms you are experiencing.

Summary of your answers:

  • Yes - You cough several times most days.
  • No - You do not cough several times most days.
  • Yes - You bring up mucus or phlegm on most days.
  • No - You do not bring up mucus or phlegm on most days.
  • Yes - You get out of breath more easily than others your age.
  • No - You do not get out of breath more easily than others your age.
  • Yes - You are older than 40 years.
  • No - You are 40 years old or under.
  • Yes - You currently smoke or smoked in the past.
  • No - You do not currently smoke and have not smoked in the past

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This questionnaire was developed by the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD). For more information please visit goldcopd.org

This publication was supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $400,000 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by CDC/HHS, or the U.S. Government.

I Have a Cough that Will Not Go Away, Should I Worry about COPD?

If your provider suspects that you may have COPD, you will be asked about your medical history, complete a physical exam and perform a lung function test. Spirometry measures the amount of air you blow out and how fast you blow it out. The results of the test can determine if you have COPD.

COPD may develop slowly but as the disease progresses symptoms often get worse. Not everyone has the same COPD symptoms.

Most common early warning symptoms:

  • shortness of breath
  • cough that may bring up sputum (also called mucus or phlegm)
  • wheeze or chest tightness
  • fatigue or tiredness
  • reoccurring lung infections like acute bronchitis or pneumonia

Are You Missing the Early Warning Signs?

You may think having a cough that brings up sputum or experiencing shortness of breath is a normal part of aging. To reduce having these unpleasant symptoms occur, you may start to change your day-to-day activities and without thinking about it become less active. As your lung function worsens, it becomes harder to breathe, remain active and continue to do the things you enjoy. However, treatment is available to help reduce symptoms so you remain active and independent.

Reasons people diagnosed with COPD gave for putting off speaking with their healthcare provider:

"I am more short of breath because I am getting older."
"I cannot walk as far because I gained weight."
"I am coughing more because I used to smoke."
"I keep getting bronchitis because I am always around my grandkids."

Early detection is key to potentially preventing COPD progression while reducing symptoms and improving your quality of life.

What Should I Do if I Am at Risk for COPD?

The earlier you are diagnosed with COPD; the sooner treatment can begin. Do not ignore your symptoms and wait until your cough or shortness of breath stops you from doing the things you enjoy. Talk to your healthcare provider about changes in your breathing and activity. COPD is a progressive lung disease meaning it gets worse over time. As the disease worsens, your symptoms may become more noticeable.

Smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Learn about programs, resources and support at Lung.org/quit-smoking.


Stay up to date with vaccinations that help prevent and reduce your risk of infectious respiratory diseases that can leave lasting damage to your lungs. 


Exposure to these irritants can also damage your lungs. 

Talk to a COPD Expert

Our Lung HelpLine is staffed by registered nurses and respiratory therapists ready to help answer your questions about COPD. Connect with us by phone, email or live chat.

This webpage was supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $400,000 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by CDC/HHS, or the U.S. Government.

Page last updated: January 24, 2024

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