In this article, we explain how to recognize early-stage COPD and look at some conditions that may cause similar symptoms.
Shortness of breath and chest tightness are potential symptoms of COPD.
When a person has COPD, their lungs are less efficient at delivering oxygen to the body.
When the disease first begins damaging the lungs, a person may notice small changes that indicate a problem with their breathing.
Changes may include:
- differences in the color of mucus, which may change from clear to yellow, green, or even blood-tinged
- an increased number of respiratory infections
- having a constant cough
- making and coughing up more mucus than usual
- sleeping problems, including stopping breathing while asleep
- shortness of breath during activities that did not previously cause this symptom
- unexplained fatigue and overall lack of energy
- chest tightness and wheezing, which can make a person produce sounds such as whistling or squeaking when they breathe
In many cases, people do not recognize the early symptoms of COPD.
Ignoring small signs can allow COPD to progress more quickly, so people who are experiencing these symptoms should visit a doctor to determine their cause.
Early COPD vs. other conditions
COPD can sometimes resemble other medical conditions, which makes its detection more challenging.
Examples of these conditions include:
- Asthma: People with asthma may feel short of breath and experience wheezing. It is possible to have both early-stage COPD and asthma. A person will perform differently on lung function tests when they have asthma, so it is important to see a doctor for tests.
- Aging: When a person gets older, their chest muscles change, making it harder for them to take deep breaths. They also lose elasticity in their lungs, which can affect the delivery of oxygen into the blood. A person may sometimes think that shortness of breath is due to getting older rather than to an underlying respiratory condition.
- Acute illness: People with COPD tend to get respiratory illnesses more frequently than other people. They may think that their bouts of bronchitis, the common cold, or even pneumonia, are normal illnesses. However, they may be a sign of an underlying medical condition.
It is important for people to recognize respiratory symptoms and discuss them with a doctor to get a diagnosis.
When to see a doctor
Anyone experiencing the symptoms of COPD should see a doctor.
The majority of people with COPD are smokers.
As a result, the International Primary Care Respiratory Group recommend that anyone who is aged 35 years or above and smokes should receive testing for the condition. They also advise testing anyone who is experiencing any symptoms of COPD.
Shortness of breath during everyday activities is rarely normal but is likely to indicate an underlying medical cause.
If a person notices that they are getting ill more often, are short of breath for no reason, or have a lot more mucus than they did before, they should see a doctor.
A person can sometimes have a flare-up of COPD, during which their symptoms are much worse and possibly even life-threatening. Anyone who experiences any of the following symptoms should seek emergency medical attention:
- being unable to talk in complete sentences due to shortness of breath
- high fever
- blood in mucus
- feeling very weak
- slurred speech or confusion
Slurred speech and confusion can indicate that a person's brain is not getting enough oxygen.
Anyone experiencing these symptoms should not attempt to drive to the emergency room. They should either call 911 and ask for an ambulance or have someone else drive them.
Many people with COPD do not seek treatment until their disease has reached the more advanced stages.
In some cases, they may not like going to the doctor or admitting that their smoking has affected them. However, getting treatment can help keep COPD from getting worse.
Knowing the early signs and symptoms of COPD means that people can seek medical care as soon as possible.