Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is actually a group of lung diseases that makes it difficult to breathe by interfering with airflow as a person exhales. It is a progressive disease that gets worse over time and is one of the most common lung diseases seen by doctors. The most common symptoms of COPD are a persistent cough that lasts for a long time; a cough that generates a lot of mucus, sometimes called a “smoker’s cough;” and shortness of breath that tends to get worse during physical activity.
There are two main conditions that cause COPD to develop: chronic asthmatic bronchitis and emphysema. Over time, these two diseases, either individually or together, damage the lungs and airways so that the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen is disrupted and COPD develops. Generally speaking, COPD symptoms don’t emerge until there has been a lot of damage to the lungs. Depending on which of these lung diseases is the most prominent, the signs and symptoms of COPD might be different.
For an individual who has chronic asthmatic bronchitis, the main symptoms of COPD might be wheezing, a chronic cough and increased mucus production. Chronic asthmatic bronchitis causes the airways going to the lungs to become narrowed and inflamed which, eventually, produces the symptoms of COPD. A person who has emphysema might experience shortness of breath as one of the primary symptoms of COPD. Emphysema is a disease that damages the air sacs in the lungs and makes the chest muscles work harder to push out the air. Generally, most sufferers have one or more of these symptoms of COPD at the same time.
COPD is a progressive disease, so it’s possible for the symptoms of COPD to be so mild at the beginning that they are not even noticed. Individuals might adjust their lifestyles in response to these mild symptoms. For example, instead of walking up stairs, a person might begin to take an elevator to avoid feeling short of breath. Medical researchers have determined that there are four basic stages to COPD, each with its own type or intensity of symptoms.
Mild COPD often is associated with a chronic cough that usually brings up mucus from the lungs. Moderate COPD symptoms might include a chronic cough with a lot of mucus and shortness of breath with exercise. Severe COPD might have all of the previous symptoms plus weight loss. With very severe COPD, an individual might also begin to experience a blue tinge to the skin as well as a buildup of fluid in the feet and legs.