Struggling With These Symptoms? You Could Have COPD

We all know smoking can give you a long-term cough and shortness of breath, but what if you experience this sensation without ever having touched a cigarette? You might convince yourself it’s just a natural part of the aging process. Besides, it’s not like you’re aiming to run a marathon — as long as you can get around with relative ease, your persistent lung discomfort shouldn’t be too big of a deal, right?

If these questions align with your current way of thinking, stop while you’re ahead. Your innocent cough may actually be a sign of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which the American Lung Association notes is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. If you have any of the following symptoms, don’t ignore them. Here’s what you need to look out for.

1. Having to clear your throat when you wake up in the morning

Woman Suffering From Depression Sitting On Bed And Crying

If you didn’t catch a cold overnight, you shouldn’t have mucus every morning. | iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

If you find yourself clearing your throat every morning — even though you aren’t sick — this is a sign your lungs aren’t functioning properly. The journal Respiratory Research conducted a survey and found 37% of those living with COPD had issues in the morning because of the heavy mucus production and coughing. The morning hours can be so uncomfortable, in fact, that many with the disease report it severely impacts their quality of life. If your sunrise routine involves a bout of coughing every five minutes, it’s time to call your doctor.

2. Blueness in your lips or fingernails

woman applying lip balm

Not even your tinted lip balm can hide blue lips. | iStock.com/petrunjela

What happens when your lungs aren’t working properly? You’re not bringing enough oxygen in, which means you’ll see the effects in other areas of your body, too. COPD.net notes some people with this disease will start to see their lips, skin, and fingernails turn a blueish hue, or possibly even grey or dark purple. What’s happening here is your blood cells are turning a different color because of the lack of airflow. This symptom is more common for those who have severe COPD, so keep this in mind.

3. Respiratory infections more than a few times a year

Sick woman coughing under a blanket

Always sick? Your lungs may not be doing their job properly. | iStock.com/samotrebizan

It wouldn’t be winter without an episode of the flu or two. But if you’re particularly prone to respiratory infections, this could be a sign there’s some pre-existing damage and inflammation in your lungs. Verywell explains you get pneumonia when bacteria or viruses collect in your air sacs. This makes breathing a lot more difficult as your air sacs then fill up with fluid. If your lungs are already damaged from COPD, it makes them a lot more susceptible to invading germs. If your hand sanitizer isn’t keeping the bugs away anymore, you might have a bigger problem.

4. Swelling in the feet or ankles

woman wearing ankle boots

You might have trouble getting your favorite boots on if you have COPD. | iStock.com/tixti

If your persistent cough comes with swelling in your legs, feet, or ankles, consider this a serious warning. Because COPD causes a lack of oxygen in your bloodstream, this can end up causing your heart to not pump enough blood to your organs, COPD.net explains. Your liver and kidneys help remove excess fluid from your body, but without that proper blood flow, you can start to swell in your lower extremities. If you notice this symptom, it’s important to get it checked early. Otherwise, it can lead to more harmful and life-threatening conditions.

5. Feeling tired

woman sleeping on her laptop

You don’t need more hours of sleep, you need better sleep. | iStock.com

If it takes more than just coffee and eight hours of rest to feel fully awake — you have to make sure the sleep you’re getting is undisturbed and your oxygen intake is sufficient throughout the day. Having low oxygen levels makes you feel exhausted, which is why this is a common symptom among those with COPD. The Lung Institute also reports many with this disease don’t sleep soundly through the night.

Want to improve your daily fatigue? Go for some light exercise to get the blood moving, drink plenty of water, and see a doctor for treatment.

6. Chronic cough that produces mucus

woman coughing

Your cough isn’t just irritating — it’s a sign you need to see a doctor. | iStock.com

This is perhaps one of the most obvious symptoms, but it’s also important to note a COPD cough involves mucus production. Here’s the thing about your cough, though — as annoying as it may be, it’s a sign that your airflow is only being obstructed mildly to moderately, the International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease says. Those with more advanced COPD typically feel more out of breath than anything else. Do yourself a favor and help your cough early, so it doesn’t turn into something more serious.

7. Weight loss

young healthy girl on home scales

Don’t get too excited about losing a few pounds — it could be serious. | iStock.com/nensuria

Maybe you don’t mind dropping a few inches around your waistline, but if your weight loss is accompanied by other COPD symptoms, you’ll want to get it checked out. You might not realize this, but just the act of breathing burns calories. And Albert Rizzo, M.D., tells WebMD the extra effort to breathe required by someone with COPD can burn a lot more energy than usual. This can cause significant weight loss, which can also set you up for a weakened immune system and more frequent infections. Don’t let that number on the scale get too low — you might regret it.

8. Headaches in the morning

Stressed woman having headache

No one wants to wake up with a migraine. | iStock.com/SIphotography

We all know the dull pain of a headache, but if you have COPD, you probably experience it way too often. The Lung Institute explains those with this disease don’t just have trouble inhaling enough oxygen — they also have a problem getting rid of the carbon dioxide that accumulates in their lungs. The dull, throbbing headache associated with COPD is because of this carbon dioxide buildup. And don’t be surprised to find you’re waking up with this pain first thing in the morning — it’s a result of poor breathing throughout the night.

9. Shortness of breath, particularly during exercise

happy people doing lunge exercises in gym

Struggling through your exercise class? Maybe it’s COPD. | iStock.com/dolgachov

As we stated before, shortness of breath is common for those with COPD, and it can be an even bigger problem than persistent coughing. And those with this lung disease will experience issues when trying to exercise. That doesn’t mean you should totally give up physical activity, however — Cleveland Clinic says you still need to get your blood moving when you have COPD, as it can help your body use oxygen more efficiently.

Remember, when you’re breathing, always take a deep inhale through your nose before exhaling through your mouth. This will warm and moisturize the air going to your lungs and ensure a more complete exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

10. Mood swings

Couple having problems in relationship

Mood swings and lung irritation? Could be COPD. | iStock.com/nd3000

You may feel irritable for a variety of reasons — your job, your family, and your social life can all leave you on edge from time to time. But it’s common for those with COPD to have frequent mood swings accompany their other symptoms. MedlinePlus says it’s important to care for your emotional health when you have this disease because it can come with a lot of stress, anxiety, and depression. Your condition may leave you unable to do all of the activities you used to do, and you might also be isolating yourself because getting out and doing things is harder than it once was. In essence, COPD can shrink your world. If your lungs are affecting your life to this extent, getting help is vital.

11. Wheezing

Side view of sick woman having tea

Your wheezing might be more than a bout with the flu. | iStock.com/IPGGutenbergUKLtd

Whether you have COPD or not, you’re probably familiar with how awful wheezing feels. The tight, rattling feeling in your chest can really affect your day to day life. If you have COPD, it’s likely you’ll experience wheezing every day, particularly when you’re exerting yourself, says Medscape. Be particularly wary if you have this symptom accompanied with heavy mucus production and a cough — this is a warning you should get your lungs checked out by a doctor.

12. Bulging chest

Doctor showing xray to a patient

You absolutely should not ignore a change in your chest shape. | iStock.com/johnkellerman

If you’ve ignored your other symptoms long enough to notice a bulging in your chest, this is a sign things have gotten pretty serious. Healthline explains COPD can cause your lungs to become chronically overfilled with air, causing your ribcage to expand. This will give your chest the rounded look of a barrel. Not only does this physically appear alarming, but a bulging chest can make breathing problems even worse. The simplest activities will suddenly feel impossible.

Risk factors

Woman smoker smoking

Once and for all, step far away from the cigarettes. | iStock.com/Terroa

What’s the number one worst thing you can willingly do to your lungs? You guessed it — smoking. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute says up to 75% of those with COPD either currently smoke or used to. And if you have a family history of the disease, this only increases your odds if you’re still addicted to cigarettes.

Unfortunately, even if you’ve never smoked, you can still develop this disease. Long-term exposure to anything that irritates your lungs (this can include air pollution, chemical fumes, or dust from your workplace) can give you COPD.

COPD complications

couple meeting with a female doctor

COPD can lead to problems with your heart. Act early so it doesn’t go this far. | iStock.com

The scariest part about COPD isn’t these symptoms — it’s the complications that can result from the disease and ultimately cause your demise. As we stated before, you’re more likely to have frequent lung infections if you have COPD. And pneumonia can be really serious, especially if you’re already having trouble breathing on an average day. WebMD tells us you may also be at particular risk for thinning bones, a collapsed lung that causes air to leak into your chest cavity, or even heart failure. These more serious complications occur when COPD is at its later stages, so acting before things get severe can really save your life.

What you can do

3D illustration of Lungs

All hope is not lost — a few lifestyle changes can help you get back on your feet. | iStock.com/yodiyim

Here’s the bad news: There’s currently no cure for COPD. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do if you have it. The NHLBI says the best thing you can do for yourself is to quit smoking if you haven’t already, and avoid anything you’re surrounded by that may be irritating your lungs. If your COPD has caused weight loss, you’ll want to talk to your doctor about creating a meal plan so you can get adequate nutrients. This may involve taking some supplements, too.

Though physical activity may feel difficult, you’ll want to make sure you’re moving. Ask your doctor about what types of activity you should do. Even just going for short walks can help strengthen your muscles that help you breathe. And don’t be afraid to ask about an inhaler — whether you have a serious case of the disease or its in a more mild stage, having an inhaler on hand can make a world of difference.