Symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can vary depending on the amount of damage in the lungs. They usually develop over a number of years, so you may not be aware you have the condition  until any significant damage has occurred.

Common COPD Symptoms

Chronic Cough

Coughing is how the body clears the airways, mucus of lung, other irritants, and secretions. Mucus is usually clear; however, in people with COPD, it may be a yellow color. Often the cough is very bad in the morning. You may cough more when you do exercise or smoke. The cough may persist every day, even if there are no other symptoms of illness such as a cold or a flu.


When you exhale through narrow or obstructed air passages, you will often hear a whistling sound. This is called wheezing. In people with COPD, it is most often caused by excess mucus blocking the airways. Wheezing doesn’t always mean you have COPD. Wheezing is also a symptom of asthma and pneumonia.

Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)

As the airways in your lungs become inflamed and damaged and begin to constrict, you might find it difficult to breathe or catch your breath. This COPD symptom is noticeable during increased physical activity. It can make routine daily tasks, such as walking, doing simple household chores, dressing, or bathing, more difficult. At its worst, it can even occur during rest.


If you have difficulty breathing, you can’t get enough oxygen for your blood and for your muscles. Without the necessary oxygen, your body slows down and fatigue sets in. You may also feel tired because your lungs are working extra hard to get the oxygen in and the carbon dioxide out, thus draining your energy.

Frequent Respiratory Infections

Because people with COPD have greater difficulty clearing their lungs of bacteria, viruses, pollutants, dust, and other irritants, they can be at greater risk for lung infections such as colds, flu, and pneumonia. Though it’s difficult to avoid infections altogether, practicing hygiene and getting vaccinations can reduce your risk.

Weight Loss

If you’ve been suffering COPD for a long time, you may notice that you’ve been losing weight. The extra energy your body needs may be burning more calories than your body is taking in, which causes you to lose weight. Weight loss may also occur because fatigue and shortness of breath make eating difficult.

Advanced COPD Symptoms

  • Morning headaches can occur due to higher levels of carbon dioxide in the blood.
  • Swollen feet and ankles can occur due to increased stress on the heart, which has to work harder to pump blood through the damaged lungs.

Stages of COPD

There are four stages of COPD, ranging progressively from mild to very severe. Each stage has different symptoms, and performance on pulmonary function tests (PFTs) typically decreases as the stages progress.

Stage 1

Stage 1 of COPD has mild symptoms, like some shortness of breath. Mild airflow limitation (FEV1/FVC < 70%; FEV1 >80% predicted) and sometimes, but not always, chronic cough and sputum production. At this stage, the individual may not be aware that his or her lung function is abnormal.

Stage 2

At this stage, airflow limitation results are worsen (FEV1/FVC < 70%; 50% < FEV1 < 80% predicted), with shortness of breath typically developing during exertion. This is the stage at which patients typically seek medical attention because of chronic respiratory symptoms or an exacerbation of their disease.

Stage 3

Further worsening of airflow limitation (FEV1/FVC < 70%; 30% < FEV1 < 50% predicted) This brings severe symptoms, greater shortness of breath, reduced exercise capacity, and repeated exacerbations which have an impact on patients’ quality of life.

Stage 4

This is the most severe stage of COPD, this causes a significantly reduced quality of life because of the shortage of breath. Trouble in breathing may even be life-threatening during some episodes. The airflow limitation results are severe (FEV1/FVC < 70%; FEV1 < 30% predicted) or FEV1 < 50% predicted plus chronic respiratory failure. Patients may have very severe (Stage IV) COPD even if the FEV1 is > 30% predicted, whenever this complication is present.

COPD is a serious condition that affects life in many ways. Because it is a progressive disease, signs and symptoms may not be noticeable until the condition has considerably worsened. If you are having trouble breathing or notice an unexplained cough, see your doctor for a medical opinion.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Want to live your best life?
Get the Hello Doktor Daily newsletter for health tips, wellness updates and more.
You might also like