COPD Symptoms and Causes Expert Insights

Everything You Need To Know About COPD Symptoms and Causes


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a chronic lung disease characterized by inflammation of the lungs leading to blocked airflow from the lungs. In COPD, the lungs are significantly affected, making breathing difficult and resulting in symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and mucus (sputum) production.

According to reports released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States. The condition is known to kill around three million individuals annually! COPD develops at a slow pace and worsens with time. Early prevention and treatment is the key to recovering from the condition fully and preventing severe damage to the lungs, respiratory conditions, and even heart failure.

Types of COPD

COPD is primarily an umbrella term used for individuals with one or more of the following listed conditions:


This condition is caused by damage to the lungs' air sacs (alveoli). The damage tends to destroy the walls of the lungs leading to the merging of these walls into one huge air sac. This situation interrupts the ability of walls to absorb oxygen. As a result, the blood receives less oxygen than it normally should. Damaged alveoli stretch the lungs out, losing their natural elasticity. Air gets trapped in the lungs, making it difficult to exhale and making the patient feel breathless.

Chronic Bronchitis

This condition is characterized by symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath, and mucus that stays for three months to two years consecutively. Cilia, hair-like fibers lining the bronchial tubes, expel mucus. Chronic bronchitis results in the loss of cilia, making it difficult to eliminate the mucus. As a result, the patient coughs more and produces more mucus.

Stages of COPD

The GOLD classification divides COPD into four stages based on the severity of symptoms and the degree of airflow limitation:

  • Stage 1 (mild): Oxygen saturation levels may be normal or slightly reduced, with a 95-97% range.
  • Stage 2 (moderate): Oxygen saturation levels may be moderately reduced, with a 90-94% range.
  • Stage 3 (severe): Oxygen saturation levels may be significantly reduced, ranging from 60 to 89%.
  • Stage 4 (very severe): Oxygen saturation levels may be dangerously low, with a less than 60% range.

It is vital to know that the severity of COPD symptoms may not always correlate with the stage of the disease and that the GOLD classification is just one way of categorizing COPD.

Symptoms of COPD

The symptoms of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) can differ depending on the severity of the disease and the individual. However, the most common symptoms of COPD include the following:

  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activity
  • Wheezing or whistling sound when breathing
  • Chest tightness or heaviness
  • Chronic cough that produces mucus (often called smoker's cough)
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Swelling in the ankles, feet, or legs
  • Cyanotic (blue) lips or fingernail beds (a sign of low oxygen levels)

Is it a Medical Emergency?

If you encounter any of the symptoms listed below, chances are that the infection or your COPD is getting worse. It is advised to get in touch with your medical professional immediately or within 24 hours:

  • Breathless
  • Coughing more than usual
  • Breathlessness affecting your daily routine
  • Coughing up more gunk (green/yellow/rust-colored) than normal
  • Fever over 101 F
  • Feel dizzy or lightheaded

It is important to understand that some people with COPD may not experience any symptoms in the early stages of the disease, which is why it is essential to be aware of risk factors such as smoking and to undergo screening if you have any concerns about your lung health. Early diagnosis and treatment can help manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.

Causes of COPD

COPD is commonly caused by long-term exposure to irritants that damage the lungs and airways, particularly cigarette smoke. Other factors that can contribute to the development of COPD include air pollution exposure, chemical fumes, dust, and genetic factors.

Risk Factors of COPD

Understanding personal risk factors for COPD is the first step to preventing the condition, recognizing symptoms, and getting treated before it is too late:

  • Smoking: It is the primary risk factor for COPD. The habit is known to cause 90% of COPD deaths. Cigarette smokers, pipe smokers, and cigar smokers are also at risk. Exposure to secondhand smoke is also a potential risk factor.
  • Air Pollution: Exposure to indoor and outdoor pollutants can lead to COPD. Common indoor air pollution includes particulate matter emitted from solid fuel smoke used while heating and cooking meals. People cooking on poorly ventilated wood stoves, fire, or burning biomass or coal are more prone to developing COPD. Environmental pollution is also a considerable risk factor for COPD. Urban air pollution, such as exposure to traffic and combustion-related pollution, puts one at greater health risk globally.
  • Work-Related Dust and Chemicals: Many individuals are regularly exposed to industrial dust, chemicals, and gases due to their work nature. Long-term exposure to these vices causes irritation and inflammation in the airways and lungs, putting one at greater risk of developing COPD. Individuals involved in coal mining, metal molding, and grain handling are constantly exposed to dust and chemical vapors, introduces them at greater risk of developing COPD.
  • Genetics: Rarely, genetic factors may cause COPD among individuals who have never smoked or had long-term particulate exposure. The genetic issue is caused by a lack of the protein alpha 1 (α1) –antitrypsin (AAT).
  • Age: The condition is most common among individuals over the age of 40 with a smoking history. The risk increases with age. However, you can do nothing about progressing age; taking measures to stay healthy helps.
  • Asthma: People with asthma who smoke or are exposed to air pollution are at increased risk of developing COPD.
  • Gender: Women are more likely to develop COPD than men, although the reasons for this are not fully understood.
  • Respiratory infections: Repeated lung infections, particularly during childhood, can increase the risk of COPD.
  • Socioeconomic status: People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may have a higher risk of COPD due to factors such as higher levels of air pollution and increased exposure to occupational hazards.

It is important to note that while these factors can increase the risk of developing COPD, not everyone exposed to them will develop the disease. Additionally, some people with COPD may have no known risk factors. Quitting smoking and avoiding exposure to irritants can help reduce the risk of developing COPD or slow disease progression.

Complications and Risks Associated with COPD

COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) can lead to several complications and associated risks, including:

  • Respiratory infections: COPD can weaken the immune system, making people with the disease more susceptible to respiratory infections such as pneumonia and the flu.
  • Heart problems: COPD can strain the heart, leading to high blood pressure, heart failure, and other heart-related conditions.
  • Lung cancer: People with COPD are more likely to develop lung cancer, particularly if they smoke.
  • Depression and anxiety: COPD can significantly impact a person's quality of life and lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.
  • Fatigue and muscle weakness: COPD can cause fatigue and muscle weakness due to increased breathing effort.
  • Sleep apnea: COPD can cause sleep apnea, in which breathing stops briefly during sleep.
  • Osteoporosis: People with COPD are at increased risk of developing osteoporosis due to reduced physical activity and the use of corticosteroids to treat the disease.
  • Malnutrition: COPD can lead to malnutrition due to the increased energy required for breathing, reduced appetite, and difficulty eating.

Not everyone with COPD will experience these complications, and with proper management and treatment, the risk of complications can be reduced. Quitting smoking, avoiding exposure to irritants, following a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and taking medications as prescribed can all help reduce the risk of complications associated with COPD.

Prevention from COPD

Although it is impossible to heal the damage that has already happened in the lungs, you can adopt specific changes to slow down the damage. You can also stop the damage from getting worse. Here are some ways to prevent COPD:

  • Quit smoking: Quitting smoking is the most effective way to prevent COPD. It is never too late to quit; even people who have smoked for many years can benefit from quitting.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke: Exposure to secondhand smoke can also increase the risk of developing COPD.Avoiding secondhand smoke can significantly reduce the risk of developing the disease.
  • Avoid air pollution: Indoor and outdoor air pollution can increase the risk of developing COPD. Avoiding exposure to air pollution can help reduce the risk of developing the disease.
  • Use protective equipment: People who work in jobs that expose them to dust, fumes, and chemicals should use protective equipment such as masks and respirators.
  • Get vaccinated: Respiratory infections can increase the risk of developing COPD. Vaccination against flu and pneumonia can help reduce the risk of respiratory infections.
  • Follow a healthy lifestyle: Eating a healthy diet, regular exercise, a healthy lifestyle, and healthy weight can help reduce the risk of developing COPD.

It is important to note that while these measures can help reduce the risk of developing COPD, they may not completely prevent the disease. If you are experiencing symptoms of COPD or have a history of exposure to irritants that can cause the disease, it is essential to speak with your doctor about your risk and how to manage it.

Frequently Asked Questions

No. COPD is a chronic disease. It is incurable but managed by following treatment and health advice given by the doctor. The condition may worsen at times. This is when you should see a chest disease specialist and follow the prescribed treatment.

The first and most crucial step is to eliminate exposure to tobacco smoke (both first and secondhand). Quit smoking and follow the instructions of the health staff that attend to you.

Shortness of breath is not an indication that you need oxygen. Oxygen therapy is indicated only when the oxygen level is low during the blood gas analysis.

No. Your medical team will decide the exact time limit. It is not for a lifetime. The medical team will assess your health and need for oxygen therapy.

Eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight. Eat smaller meals at one time if you feel breathless while eating. It is also advised to eat and drink at a slow pace.

Domestic pets like cats and dogs are good company. However, they are known to shed skin and hair into the air and other objects at home, which can result in irritation of the lungs. Maintaining hygiene at home and keeping the pets clean and groomed if you have pets is advised. Do not allow pets into the bedroom.

You can travel easily by planning things in advance. Please speak to the doctor treating you for the condition and take their advice. If you need oxygen, contact a company that supplies oxygen to patients.

Take the dose as soon as you remember. However, if it is almost time for the next dose, continuing with the established prescription is advised. Strictly avoid doubling the dose to make up for the forgotten one.

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