The Symptoms of COPD and What Causes Them

COPD Symptoms to Be Aware Of

Symptoms of COPD

If you suspect you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or if you already have a formal chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) diagnosis, you are probably familiar with the symptoms of COPD – wheezing and having a hard time breathing.

However, there are several other symptoms that are characteristic of COPD that a physician will look for when diagnosing COPD.

It is also helpful to understand what COPD is – it isn’t just a blanket term for the inability to breathe with age, as I’ve heard it defined before.

So, let’s discuss what is COPD, important facts you need know about COPD, COPD symptoms you need to be aware of, and how to treat or manage COPD symptoms.

COPD by the Numbers

First, let’s talk numbers.

It is estimated that 64 million people worldwide have COPD – and 30 million of those are Americans. In 2011, the greatest prevalence of Americans suffering from COPD were situated in the Midwest and the Southeast – specifically Kentucky and Alabama, while the lowest rates were in Washington and Minnesota.

Smoking is linked to 80 percent of COPD deaths – and female smokers are 13 times more likely to die from COPD than non-smokers. Men are not immune – they are 12 times more likely to die from COPD than non-smokers.  COPD is the third leading cause of death in the US – it is third only to cancer and heart disease.


COPD is expensive – in 2010, it cost the USA approximately $49.9 billion. Yes, billion.

In a survey of people with COPD, 51 percent of people said that they were limited in their ability to function at their job, and 70 percent stated it limited their physical activity.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but the leading cause of COPD is smoking.  There are other causes, but 90% of all COPD cases are related to smoking.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that all smokers go on to develop COPD – approximately 20% of smokers eventually develop COPD.

While our rates of smoking have gone down over the years, the rate at which we develop COPD is actually expected to increase – especially in women.  Why?  Women are working in increasingly more toxic environments – environments that only men typically used to work in.  It is now believed that men and women have about as equal of a risk of developing COPD.

What Is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive condition that affects the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. It is considered a chronic condition and progressive – meaning that there is no known cure and it gets worse over time.

COPD includes two conditions simultaneously – emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

  • Emphysema means that walls surrounding the alveoli (air sacs) have become damaged, causing the alveoli to become floppy. This damage causes the damage to the walls of the alveoli as well, leading to fewer alveoli, causing a reduction in gas exchange.
  • Chronic bronchitis causes the walls of the lungs to be chronically irritated and inflamed. Thick mucus is continually formed.

Rather than saying the person has both emphysema and chronic bronchitis, the term “COPD” was created. The severity of the illness varies person-to-person, as it is with any chronic condition.

What Causes COPD?

It is common knowledge that cigarette smoking is the leading cause of the development of COPD. However, up to 25 percent of people who develop COPD have never smoked.

For those people, other risk factors can increase the likelihood of developing COPD.

Exposure to lung irritants such often contributes to the development of COPD; examples include chemical fumes, dust, and pollution.

Having been born prematurely can, unfortunately, put you at a higher risk of developing COPD later in life; this is called neonatal chronic lung disease.

Alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency is a rare genetic condition that can predispose people to develop COPD, as well as cirrhosis and necrotizing panniculitis. Alpha-1 antitrypsin is an enzyme made by the liver.

This enzyme helps protect the body’s organs from harmful effects of other proteins. When the AAT proteins aren’t in the correct shape, they get stuck in the liver, they are unable to get to the lungs – causing COPD and liver conditions.

People with AAT deficiency who don’t smoke can typically expect to start getting symptoms in their 80s – but people who have AAT deficiency and add smoking to the mix can begin getting COPD symptoms as early as their 30s and 40s.

People do not typically realize that they have AAT deficiency until symptoms develop – unless they are aware of their family history.  Current estimates suggest that there are 100,000 people in the US with AAT deficiency.  This deficiency does not seem to affect one ethnic group over another – it has been detected in all populations.

The Alpha-1 Foundation note that having this deficiency does not necessarily mean becoming ill – avoiding other risk factors can reduce the risk of developing COPD.  They state, “Early diagnosis and avoiding risk factors, such as cigarette smoking, can help prevent Alpha-1 from causing disease.”

Symptoms of AAT deficiency-related to the lungs may include:

  • Bronchiectasis.
  • Year-round allergies.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Chronic bronchitis.
  • Recurring chest colds.
  • Less exercise tolerance.

Symptoms of AAT deficiency-related to the liver may include:

  • Unexplained liver disease and elevated liver enzymes.
  • Jaundice.
  • Vomiting blood.
  • Ascites (swelling) of the abdomen.

So, now that we know what COPD is and what causes it, let’s discuss the symptoms of COPD.

What Are the Symptoms of COPD?

COPD typically is present, without symptoms, for a while. By the time symptoms are present, significant lung damage has already occurred – and this can continue to worsen if you are a smoker and continue to smoke, and/or if you do not seek medical treatment.

The hallmark symptom of COPD is a daily cough with sputum production for at least three months a year, for two consecutive years. The timeframe is important because this helps to differentiate from a lingering cold, chronic environmental allergies, and other respiratory illnesses.

Next page: Learn about the symptoms of COPD, how COPD is diagnosed and more. 

1 2 Next
Click here to see comments