Early symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

chronic obstructiveThe early symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – when there are any at all – tend to be mild. More often than not, the signs of COPD become apparent only after considerable damage to the lungs has been caused by the conditions that group under the COPD umbrella – which includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and sometimes asthma. In the case of bronchitis, daily cough and producing sputum at least three months out of the year for two years in a row are major symptoms.

Additional symptoms of COPD include:

  • Shortness of breath, in particular during physical activities.
  • Wheezing.
  • Tightness in the chest.
  • A need to clear the throat early in the morning because of mucus build-up in the lungs.
  • Chronic cough that produces clear, white, yellow, or greenish sputum.
  • Bluish lips or fingernail beds.
  • Recurring respiratory infections.
  • Energy loss.
  • Unintended weight loss.

The chronic cough that characterizes COPD is sometimes known as ‘smoker’s cough.’ However, this may be a bit of a misnomer; although tobacco is indeed a risk factor in the onset of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, it is not the only one. Air pollution, chemical fumes or dust from the environment or workplace, and fumes from burning fuel for cooking and heating in poorly ventilated homes can also contribute to the development of this condition. And to be fair, one air pollutant is not morally superior to another. Additionally, a genetic condition known as alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency can cause COPD

According to the CDC, people who are more likely to have COPD include the following:

  • People between the ages of 65 and 74.
  • Non-Hispanic whites.
  • Women.
  • People who are unemployed, retired, or unable to work.
  • People with less than a high school education.
  • Individuals with lower incomes.
  • People who are divorced, widowed, or separated.
  • People with a history of asthma.
  • People who currently or formerly smoked.

The CDC also reports that 15 million Americans report having been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The actual number may be higher, though, because over 50% of adults with low pulmonary function were not aware that they had COPD. Furthermore, this disorder is a slow burner. As a result, the majority of people are actually around the ages of 35 to 40 years old when they begin to experience the early symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

These symptoms can increase in intensity during episodes that are labeled as ‘exacerbations.’ This is hardly the only complication related to COPD, though. Other common complications are:

  • Respiratory infections.
  • Heart problems.
  • Lung cancer.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Depression.
  • Disability.
  • Death (the third leading cause in the United States).

Fortunately, early detection and treatment can relieve the symptoms, minimize the frequency of exacerbations, prevent complications, and improve tolerance to exercise. Pulmonary function tests that make us of a spirometer or a pulse oximeter are simple methods to diagnose COPD. Further tests include:

  • Chest x-ray.
  • CT scan.
  • Arterial blood gas analysis.

 The primary goal of treatment is to slow and/or change the course of the disease. The first step toward treating – as well as preventing – COPD is to stop smoking – or better yet, not starting at all. But in addition to lifestyle changes such as that, treatment can also involve medications, lung therapy, and even surgery, as seen below.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease treatment


  • Bronchodilators.
  • Inhaled steroids.
  • Combination inhalers.
  • Oral steroids.
  • Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors.
  • Theophylline.
  • Antibiotics.

Lung therapies

  • Oxygen therapy.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation.


  • Bullectomy.
  • Lung volume reduction surgery.
  • Lung transplant.

Add to that annual flu shots and a pneumococcal vaccine to lower the risk of the flu and pneumococcal pneumonia, two of the greatest enemies of people who have COPD. As a matter of fact, living with the early symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – as well as the late ones – is difficult but not impossible. If you have this condition, it is extremely important for you to avoid lung irritants, get continuing care, and be prepared for emergencies. Also, consider joining a COPD support group for emotional backing.

Related Read:

- Good COPD/Bad COPD: Caring for someone with COPD