COPD: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment


What is COPD?

COPD, short for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a lung disease that makes it hard for people to breathe, which is like asthma. The first symptoms are mild and are often mistaken for the same symptoms that are present with ageing. People with COPD are prone to developing either chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or both. COPD symptoms tend to get worse over time, however, catching it early, along with proper care, can help many people stay active and may also slow down the disease.


Inside the lungs, COPD can clog the airways and damage the tiny, balloon-like sacs (alveoli) that work by absorbing oxygen.

Symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Constant coughing
  • Producing a lot of mucus (sputum)
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Frequent colds or flu

Advanced Symptoms of COPD

Severe COPD imitates asthma symptoms, along with pulmonary fibrosis symptoms, and makes it difficult for patients to go about their daily routine. Coughing up excess mucus and experiencing shortness of breath could potentially worsen the condition.

Advanced symptoms include:

  • Swollen legs or feet as a result of fluid buildup
  • Weight loss
  • Decreased muscle strength and endurance
  • Headaches
  • Blue or grey lips/ fingernails, as a result of decreased oxygen levels

COPD: Chronic Bronchitis

Bronchiectasis is the main problem for patients with COPD. Key symptoms include a nagging cough with the presence of mucus (phlegm). Inside the lungs, the small airway walls are swollen, there is a constant oozing of mucus and scarring. Experiencing a « smoker’s cough » is typically a sign of chronic bronchitis.

COPD: Emphysema

Emphysema causes damage to the tiny air sacs in the lungs, which inflates when one breathes, which transports oxygen to the lungs and get rid of carbon dioxide. With the presence of emphysema, these delicate air sacs, are not able to expand, nor contract properly. Eventually, the air sacs are diminished, decreasing the ability for patients to exhale properly.


Diagnosis of COPD

Diagnosis: Physical Exam

Your diagnosis depends on your quality of breathing, your family’s history with COPD and smoking habits. Oxygen levels in your blood may be measured with a blood test or pulse oximeter.

Diagnosis: Spirometry Breath Test

Spirometry is the main test for COPD and measures the quantity of air that moves in and out of your lungs. This is done by taking a deep breath and blowing as hard as you can into a tube. The test can be repeated after inhaling a puff of a bronchodilator medicine, to open the airways. Spirometry can locate any symptoms associated with COPD.

Diagnosis: Chest X-Ray

A chest X can only help establish conditions that cause similar symptoms, like pneumonia. Larger lungs are a clear indication of advanced COPD.



Bronchodilators, medications that relax the muscles of the airways aid in keeping them open and increases proper breathing. Anticholinergics, a type of bronchodilator, are used by patients with COPD. Short-acting bronchodilators last four to six hours and are used as required. Longer-acting bronchodilators can be used every day for people who experience more persistent symptoms. COPD patients may use both types of bronchodilators.


If bronchodilators don’t provide proper relief, COPD patients are advised to consume corticosteroids. These are taken by inhaler and may reduce inflammation in the airways. Steroids may also be given by pill or injection to treat flare-ups of COPD.

Lung Training

Pulmonary rehabilitation classes teach individuals methods to keep up with daily activities, without experiencing excessive shortness of breath. Specific exercises may help in building muscle strength.

Increased Breathing with COPD

Pursed-lip breathing reduces the effects of breathing. By breathing in normally through your nose, slowly blow the air out through your mouth with your lips in a whistle position. The exhale should be longer than the inhale. Strengthen your diaphragm by lying on your back with one hand on your abdomen, and one on your chest. Keep your chest still and allow your stomach to rise and fall as you breathe.

Oxygen Therapy

Severe COPD lowers oxygen in your blood. Extra oxygen is required for your body to function correctly. It will allow you to stay active without fatigued or lack breathing, and aid in protecting your brain, heart, and organs. With COPD, you require supplemental oxygen, provided through tubing from an oxygen tank to the nostrils. Smoking, candles, and other flames are off-limits near oxygen tanks.


People with COPD are at risk of obtaining lung infections. If you’re coughing and experiencing a shortness of breath, or develop a fever, you should contact your doctor. These signs suggest a potential lung infection. Your doctor may prescribe medications, to diminish it fast.


Some cases of patients with COPD may benefit from surgery. Bullectomy and lung volume reduction surgery, remove the infected parts of the lungs, which allows healthy tissue to perform better and simplifies breathing. A lung transplant may help some people with the most severe COPD.

COPD and Exercise

Walking is recommended to COPD patients. Start with 5 or 10 minutes daily, 3 to 5 days a week. Add minutes as your performance increases. With severe COPD, you may be able to reach 30 minutes of walking without stopping. Use proper oxygen while engaging in an activity, unless you are on oxygen therapy.

What Causes COPD?

90% of COPD patients are current or former smokers. This disease usually appears after the age of 40. Secondhand smoke and exposure to environmental irritants or pollution can increase your risk of COPD. In rare cases, DNA may cause COPD, even if the patient has never smoked before. One such genetic conditions are called Alpha-1 Antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency.

Quitting Smoking will Help

Smokers with COPD will lose function of their lungs faster. Tobacco smoke destroys tiny hair-like cilia that repair and cleans out the airways. Quitting will slow or stop the damage and is an essential step for COPD patients. Benefits include increased taste-buds and a lowered risk of obtaining heart disease.

COPD and Nutrition

A healthy diet is important for COPD patients. Being overweight can decrease breathing while being underweight could add to weakness and fatigue in the body.

Follow these guidelines to increase your health with proper nutrition:

  • Consume 6-8 glasses of water daily.
  • Consume high-fibre foods
  • Avoid overeating.
  • Avoid sodium-rich and processed.
  • Eat 4-6 small meals daily.

The Link Between COPD and Cancer

Most COPD patients develop lung cancer, which is due to a smoking history of cigarettes. Researchers suggest that specific genes make some people more vulnerable to COPD or the chances of getting cancer. Chronic inflammation, caused by smoking and other lung irritants, also play a role in COPD and cancer.

Tips for Living with COPD

  • Stay active when experiencing COPD symptoms. You must either pace your breathing or use oxygen therapy. Staying active will increase your strength.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke, chemical fumes, and lung irritants.
  • Get vaccinated against the flu and pneumococcal disease.
  • Wash hands frequently, and avoid hacking, sniffling people during cold and flu season.

More from The Real Simple

What breakfast should I eat to lose weight?


This Nurse Shares Photos of Herself Taken Before and After Working for Eight Months in a Covid-19 unit.


This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy