Coughing, wheezing or feeling out of breath? How to tell if that could mean you have COPD.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) makes it difficult to breathe easily. Although COPD can’t be cured, there are treatments available that may improve your ability to breathe.

It’s not always easy to tell if you have COPD. In fact, millions of Americans may have the disease and not realize it, according to the American Lung Association®. This Q&A provides information about symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of the condition so you’ll have a better idea of when it’s time to see a doctor.

What Is COPD?

COPD refers to a group of chronic lung diseases that damage the lungs, reduce airflow and affect breathing. These include:

  • Emphysema
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Non-reversible asthma

All of these diseases reduce the amount of air that reaches your lungs. COPD-related breathing problems may occur if the sacs at the ends of the small airways in your lungs become damaged. You may also have trouble breathing if your air sacs or airways become less elastic or the wall of the airways becomes inflamed and thick. When the airways are inflamed, your lungs may begin to make too much mucus, which can block your airways and make it harder to breathe.

What are the symptoms of COPD?

If you have COPD, these are some of the symptoms you may notice:

  • Constant cough
  • Coughing up mucus
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Fatigue

How is COPD diagnosed and treated?

Your doctor will perform a few tests that will help determine how well your lungs work. During one type of breathing test, called spirometry, you’ll take a deep breath and then will blow the air out as hard and fast as you can. The test gives your doctor important information about your ability to inhale and exhale air through your lungs. Depending on your symptoms, you may also have a blood test, chest X-ray or computed tomography (CT) scan of your lungs.

If you’re diagnosed with COPD, your doctor may prescribe one of these treatments:

  • Inhaled medications that decrease inflammation and open the airways
  • Antibiotics for lung infections
  • Vaccines to reduce your risk of developing flu, pneumonia or COVID-19
  • Oxygen therapy to improve your breathing if you have severe COPD
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation to help make everyday activities easier
  • Surgery to improve breathing if other treatments don’t help

When should you see a doctor?

If you’re not sure if you have COPD, call your doctor if you have any of the symptoms mentioned above. If you’ve already been diagnosed with COPD, contact your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • Feeling short of breath after walking a short distance
  • Coughing more
  • Wheezing
  • Using inhalers or oxygen more than usual
  • Producing more mucus or different-colored mucus
  • Blood in your mucus
  • Breathing problems that wake you up
  • Swelling in your ankles, legs or feet
  • Morning headaches
  • Confusion
  • Feeling dizzy when you wake up
  • Fever

The earlier COPD is treated, the better. Be sure to contact your doctor right away if you have symptoms that might indicate you have COPD, your symptoms get worse even with treatment or you don’t feel well and aren’t quite sure why.


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Date Last Reviewed: September 7, 2021

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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