8 Symptoms Never to Ignore If You Have COPD

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
  • COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is an umbrella term for lung diseases that make it hard to breathe. Shortness of breath and coughing are part of COPD, so some people consider these symptoms something they have to “put up with.”

    But sharing your symptoms in detail with your healthcare providers can help your medical team find the treatment plan that’s most effective for you. Paying careful attention to your symptoms is also the best way to catch complications before they turn into something serious.

  • 1
    Inability to perform your usual activities
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    With appropriate medical treatment, most people with COPD can work and enjoy leisure activities. If you find yourself having to stop and rest more frequently than usual, tell your healthcare provider. And if your shortness of breath becomes so bad that it’s difficult for you to take care of yourself and walk even short distances, it’s time to see your doctor.

    You could have an underlying infection making COPD symptoms worse, or you might need a change in your treatment regimen.

  • 2
    Trouble sleeping

    If you are waking up frequently at night, or have a hard time going to sleep because it’s difficult to find a comfortable position that also allows you to breathe easily, contact your healthcare provider.

    Some people with COPD also have sleep apnea, a serious condition characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. (Sometimes, a bed partner will notice these pauses. Snoring is another symptom of sleep apnea.) COPD and sleep apnea both make it difficult for the body to get the oxygen it needs, so it’s important to treat both conditions if they occur together.

  • 3
    Increased coughing
    Older Caucasian woman outside in sweater coughing

    A cough is a common symptom of COPD, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore coughs. An increase in coughing could mean your disease is getting worse, and a change in treatment may be necessary. <p>A cough can also be a symptom of a lung infection, such as pneumonia. If you start coughing up greenish or yellow mucus, call your healthcare provider–especially if you additional symptoms of pneumonia, such as a fever and increased shortness of breath. Prompt diagnosis and treatment of pneumonia may keep you out of the hospital.</p>

  • 4
    Chest pain

    If you experience pain in your chest when breathing, call your healthcare provider. Such pain can be a symptom of pneumonia.

    Pneumonia-related chest pain typically isn’t constant; instead, it shows up when you try to take a deep breath. It also tends to be located in a specific area, rather than spread across the entire chest. Pneumonia can be life-threatening, so it’s best not to take any chances and contact your doctor right away.

  • 5
    Doctor examining male patient

    Wheezing occurs when air moves through a restricted passageway. (Remember blowing across the top of an empty bottle? That sound occurs because the lip of the bottle interferes with the free movement of air.)

    Some people with COPD wheeze when they are short of breath. Any increase in wheezing, though, can be a sign of a COPD flare-up. If you are wheezing more than usual, contact your healthcare provider. Prompt treatment may eliminate the wheezing all together, and make it much easier to breathe and function.

  • 6
    Irritability, hopelessness, or lack of interest in activities

    Depression is common in people with COPD. In fact, researchers think the inflammation that helps cause COPD may also contribute to the development of depression. Unfortunately, most people with depression and COPD don’t receive adequate treatment, which is a shame, because appropriate treatment of depression leads to both improved quality of life and better breathing.

    If you feel down or experience feelings of worthlessness, irritability or self-hate, talk to your healthcare provider. Other signs of depression include difficulty sleeping, a change in appetite, and lack of interest in activities that normally bring you pleasure.

  • 7
    Doctor and patient

    People with COPD are at increased risk for shingles, an infection caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. If you ever had chickenpox, you’re at risk of developing shingles.

    The first symptom of shingles is often a muscle ache; the most obvious symptom is a rash that looks similar to a poison ivy or poison oak rash. If you notice any rashes on your skin, notify your healthcare provider. Medical treatment can help control the discomfort associated with shingles.

  • 8
    Back pain
    Man with back pain

    Approximately one-third of people with COPD also develop osteoporosis, a bone disease characterized by loss of bone tissue. Unfortunately, the first physical symptom of osteoporosis is often a broken bone. Sometimes, there’s not even an obvious injury or break. Some people develop back pain they attribute to “old age,” only to later find out that the true cause of their pain is a fractured or collapsed vertebra due to osteoporosis.

    If you develop back pain or notice a change in your posture, ask your healthcare provider to check for osteoporosis. Medical treatment can help slow bone loss.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 17
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.