Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a type of lung condition that causes breathing difficulties. A person with stage 1 COPD may have mild-to-moderate symptoms.

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), over 16.4 million people have diagnosed COPD. The condition also affects millions of people who may not even know that they have it.

Although there is currently no cure for COPD, there are many treatments available to help manage the symptoms and improve a person’s quality of life.

This article discusses stage 1 COPD symptoms, treatment, outlook, and more.

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When a person has COPD, the airways in the lungs do not function very well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this happens because of one or more of the following reasons:

  • The airways and tiny air sacs in the lungs become less elastic.
  • The air sac walls get damaged, destroyed, or thick and swollen.
  • Mucus clogs the airways, blocking airflow.

As the airflow decreases, the body takes in less oxygen, and it becomes harder for the body to get rid of carbon dioxide, which is the waste gas that the body produces.

Sometimes, healthcare professionals refer to COPD as either emphysema or chronic bronchitis. However, according to the ALA, most people with COPD will have symptoms of both chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), long-term exposure to damaging lung irritants is the most common cause of COPD.

In the United States, cigarette smoke is responsible for 85–90% of COPD cases.

Some other possible causes of COPD include:

  • exposure to other forms of tobacco smoke, such as pipe or cigar smoke
  • exposure to secondhand smoke
  • exposure to environmental irritants, such as air pollution, chemical fumes, and dust

In rare cases, a genetic condition called alpha-1 deficiency can cause COPD. This deficiency makes it harder for the body to make the alpha-1 protein that protects the lungs.

In some people, asthma may also lead to COPD.

According to the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD), there are four stages of COPD, ranging from mild to severe.

According to the GOLD guidelines, a person has stage 1 COPD if their FEV1 is over 80%. FEV means forced expiratory volume, and FEV1 is the amount of air that a person can forcefully exhale in 1 second.

A doctor will measure FEV1 using a spirometry test, during which a person will breathe out vigorously into a mouthpiece connected to a machine.

Learn more about FEV1 and COPD here.

When a person has stage 1 COPD, they may not even be aware that they have COPD. According to the NHLBI, at first, COPD may not cause any symptoms. If it does cause symptoms, they will be very mild.

Learn more about the early signs of COPD here.

The ALA agree, stating that many people with early COPD do not realize that they are having symptoms associated with it. Instead, people with stage 1 COPD may consider mild shortness of breath with activity just part of getting older.

However, the ALA also note that shortness of breath is an important indicator of lung disease.

The CDC say that in the early stages of COPD, a person may notice the following mild symptoms:

  • a persistent cough that produces a lot of mucus
  • a whistling sound known as wheezing when breathing
  • shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
  • a feeling of tightness in the chest

The NHLBI add that a person with COPD may also have frequent respiratory infections, such as colds or the flu.

The symptoms that individuals with stage 1 COPD experience will vary from person to person. Generally, someone will experience more severe, frequent symptoms as the condition progresses and as the lungs become more damaged.

According to the NHLBI, COPD normally worsens over time and will cause more severe symptoms as it gets worse.

Most of the time, the condition will worsen slowly, and the symptoms will gradually become more severe. Sometimes, however, a lung infection may accelerate its progression and quickly bring on more severe symptoms.

The severity of a person’s COPD depends on the amount of damage their lungs have. According to the CDC, COPD will get worse more quickly if the person smokes and does not stop smoking after learning that they have COPD. A person who stops smoking may have slower disease progression.

The ALA suggest that all people with COPD take steps to protect their lungs, including quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke.

The NHLBI also say that a person can manage their COPD symptoms and slow the progression of the condition by:

  • avoiding lung irritants such as cigarette smoke, chemicals, and air pollution
  • working with a healthcare care team to develop an ongoing treatment plan, which may include prescription medications and vaccines for common respiratory infections
  • making lifestyle changes to help manage the symptoms
  • knowing the symptoms of an emergency and when to seek emergency treatment for COPD

Learn more about the types and stages of COPD here.

There are many different treatment options for a person with stage 1 COPD. Treatment will vary from person to person but can include a combination of the following:

  • making certain lifestyle changes, including quitting smoking and following a special nutrition plan
  • taking medications, such as bronchodilators
  • receiving vaccines for pneumonia, the flu, and other respiratory illnesses
  • undergoing pulmonary rehabilitation

As a person’s symptoms become more severe, they may need additional treatment, including:

  • medications that combine inhaled corticosteroids and bronchodilators
  • supplemental oxygen therapy
  • surgery

When a person has stage 1 COPD, their symptoms may be so mild that they do not even realize that they have it.

Over time, symptoms can include shortness of breath, chronic cough, and frequent respiratory infections. These will generally become more severe as the condition progresses.

Although there is currently no cure for COPD, stage 1 COPD is the mildest form of the condition.

There are many steps a person can take to slow the progression of the condition, including stopping smoking and working with a healthcare team to put together a treatment plan.