Recognizing COPD and Emphysema Symptoms

Recognizing COPD and Emphysema Symptoms

All packs of cigarettes have gruesome warning labels that adorn the back of its packet. One of the most common ailments that the label indicates is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Unfortunately, although this disease does disproportionally affect smokers, it does appear in people who have never smoked a day in their lives.

COPD is an umbrella term for several different progressive lung diseases like emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and refractory asthma. [1] Generally, it’s characterized by increased difficulty breathing, which is caused by different issues affecting the lungs, breathing tubes, and airways. These diseases can all progress for years without people noticing their shortness of breath. Until one day, they find that they cannot ascend a flight of stairs without stopping to catch their breath.

There are a lot of medical conditions that tend to appear in conjunction with COPD, like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, which can influence the course of the treatment.

According to the World Health Organization, COPD contributes to the death of over three million people every single year. [2] It can also lead to increased hospitalization, especially in the later stages. In fact, almost 16 million Americans are affected and hospitalized due to their COPD or emphysema each year. [3]

It’s important to get checked out early. COPD symptoms can worsen during periods known as exacerbations, but otherwise it may be difficult to identify the symptoms and suffers may go years without seeking treatment.

Living with COPD can cause a number of complications separate from the disease itself, such as increased risk for respiratory infections, heart problems, high blood pressure, and lung cancer. [4] It can also contribute to poor mental health and depression, as this chronic condition can often prevent people from leading a normal, active life, and taking part in activities in the same way as they did before.

There are treatment options that can help suffers regain as much physical strength and energy as possible. There are always steps to take to prevent further complications and maintain good health as long as possible.

Risk Factors

There are three things that have been identified as the top causes of COPD and emphysema. At the top is smoking; smoking causes about 80 percent of all deaths from COPD. [5]

Another major cause of COPD is environmental factors. Primarily, people who live or work in an area where they’re continually breathing in harmful irritants like dust, chemicals, smoke, or fumes. This includes people who have been exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke over a long period of time. The final cause of COPD that is still mystifying doctors and researchers is the genetic factor. Only one in every four smokers get COPD, and there is no scientific consensus on what makes one person vulnerable for COPD, while others smoke their whole lives without any type of disease affecting their lungs. [6]

Unfortunately, the genetic factor of COPD also means that many people who have never smoked and never been exposed to other irritants or fumes will be diagnosed with COPD. The genetic risk factor Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency is the most common genetic cause of COPD.  Without the Alpha-1 Antitypsin protein, our blood cells cause harm to our lungs, which causes them to deteriorate. It’s possible that there are also other genetic causes of COPD that doctors have not been able to identify yet. [7]

If someone in your family has COPD, it may be worth talking to your doctor to see if there’s anything you can do to help prevent the disease and catch it early on.

Signs and Symptoms

It is possible to live with COPD and emphysema for years without noticing any changes in your breathing. Once you notice the symptoms, it means that significant lung damage has likely already occurred, so it’s important to take your symptoms seriously, and seek treatment as early as possible.

One of the most ubiquitous symptoms is shortness of breath. At the beginning, you may only notice this during strenuous physical activity, but as the disease progresses, it will become more difficult to breathe when do you everyday tasks. You may feel like your breath is wheezing in your chest, and you may feel tightness in your chest too.

Depending on whether you have chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or generalized COPD, you may also have a chronic cough accompanied by mucus that is especially difficult to clear, especially in the morning. Frequent respiratory infections are common, as is swelling in the ankles, feet, and legs, and blue lips and fingernails. [8]

Treatment Options

If you are exhibiting any of the above symptoms, you should consult your doctor right away. They will be able to give you a spirometry test, which will help diagnose COPD. In a spirometry test, you’ll be asked to blow all the air out of your lungs into a mouthpiece that measures your lung capacity and can predict the severity of any airway obstructions.

Once you’ve been diagnosed, there are several treatment options available depending on the severity of your condition. Unfortunately, there are no treatments available that can repair damage to your lungs — they can only treat the symptoms of the disease. Your doctor will most likely prescribe a controller medicine, which is taken on a regular basis to help maintain the health of your airways and lungs, as well as a rescue inhaler, which will provide fast-acting assistance when you’re having a flare-up. [9]

These medicines travel to the lungs through a handheld inhaler, or a nebulizer. You may also require pulmonary rehabilitation if you’re unable to perform everyday activities without shortness of breath.


  1. “What Is COPD?” COPD Foundation,
  2. “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).” World Health Organization, 1 Dec. 2017,
  3. Johnson, Keith E. “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.” Mechanical Ventilation, 2008, pp. 11–17., doi:
  4. “Complications From COPD.” WebMD,
  5.  “Health Effects of Cigarette Smoking.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 May 2017,
  6. “Smoking and COPD.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23 Apr. 2018,
  7.  “Alpha-1: Should You Be Tested?” WebMD,
  8. “What Are the Symptoms of COPD?” WebMD,
  9. “COPD Treatments and Medications.” COPD Foundation,