Symptoms and Signs of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 11/4/2021

Doctor's Notes on Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease in which obstruction of the airways occurs and typically worsens over time, making it harder to breathe. Types of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease include chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and refractory (non-reversible) asthma. The most common cause of COPD is smoking. Other causes of COPD include secondhand smoke exposure, occupational exposures (for example, coal workers, welders, sensitized cotton and flour workers), untreated diseases that cause inflammation of the airways (for example, asthma), environmental exposures, and genetic conditions such as alpha-one antitrypsin deficiency.

Symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) include

  • productive cough or chest cold (cough is usually worse in the morning and produces a small amount of colorless sputum),
  • shortness of breath,
  • wheezing, and
  • frequent colds or pneumonia.

As COPD progresses and worsens, symptoms include

  • shorter intervals between acute periods of worsening shortness of breath,
  • discoloration of the skin (cyanosis) and right side heart failure,
  • loss of appetite, and
  • weight loss

What Is the Treatment for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

COPD is a chronic disease and usually requires a lifetime of medical management. If you have COPD, some of the most important steps are to quit smoking and avoid others that do so. Mild improvement in symptoms can come just from quitting smoking. Also, quitting smoking can limit doing further damage to the lungs and making COPD progressively worse.

Your healthcare provider may also use the following treatment options:

  • Medications to treat symptoms
    • Inhalers
    • Corticosteroids
    • Oxygen
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation
    • Learning to breathe better
    • Breathing exercises
    • Lifestyle modifications to maximize breathing capacity
  • Prevention and treatment of lung infections

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.