Do You Have COPD? Here Are the Early Warning Signs

Have you ever wondered if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)? Maybe someone in your family has been diagnosed with COPD. Alternatively, perhaps you have a long history of smoking, and you are now starting to notice changes in your breathing.

In the United States alone, there is estimated to be 12 million people who have COPD—but do not know they have COPD. That means there are 12 million people who are probably noticing changes in their breathing but have not been evaluated by a physician.

If you think you have COPD, we will discuss some of the early warning signs and how a physician would test for it.

4 Early Warning Signs of COPD

Here are some of the most common early warning signs that could signal the presence of COPD:

1. Fatigue
If you are feeling more tired than normal doing simple tasks like washing the dishes or bringing in the groceries, you might be dealing with an underlying respiratory problem. While simple fatigue after lightly exerting yourself is not always cause for concern, persistent fatigue after normal activities should be evaluated.

2. Shortness of Breath
Feeling short of breath on occasion is normal under conditions of high physical stress. However, if you feel short of breath with less effort, it could be a sign that your lungs cannot keep up with the added stress.

3. A Chronic Cough
If you have a chronic cough that persists even when you are not sick, it could be a sign of a respiratory problem. Any type of a lingering cough is usually a sign that your lungs are chronically irritated or inflamed.

4. Morning Headaches
If you wake up in the morning with severe headaches, you might be lacking oxygen throughout the night. When you do not get enough oxygen at bedtime, your sleep is disrupted. This can lead to a host of serious problems, including headaches. So if you wake up with pounding headaches for no apparent reason, ask your doctor if you can get a sleep study so you can be evaluated.

The Definitive Diagnosis of COPD

If any of these early warning signs are present for you, the only way to get a definitive diagnosis is to be evaluated by a physician. Your doctor can perform a few routine procedures to investigate whether you have COPD or not:

1. Listening to Your Lung Sounds
With a simple stethoscope, your doctor will be able to listen to your lung sounds and tell whether or not you have the lungs of a COPD patient. While this type of exam only catches moderate to severe cases, it is an essential first step towards a diagnosis.

2. Arterial Blood Gas
Pulse oximeters can report reasonably accurate oxygen levels with a simple finger probe, but an arterial blood gas is a definitive sample of the oxygen levels in your blood.
An arterial blood gas is obtained from arterial blood, which is not the same as venous blood usually taken during routine lab tests. Arterial blood is saturated with oxygen, so sampling this blood gives your doctor accurate data regarding your current ability to absorb oxygen.

3. Chest X-Ray
If your doctor suspects COPD on one of these early exams, he or she might order a chest x-ray. With COPD, there are common characteristics that show up on an x-ray such as overinflation of the lungs or a flattening of the diaphragm. This data can help your doctor stage your level of COPD if you have it.

4. Pulmonary Function Test
Finally, if these other tests show signs of COPD, your doctor might also order a pulmonary function test (PFT). A PFT is performed by a respiratory therapist and involves a few tests that will give your doctor specific data regarding your lung capacity and the level of inflammation in your airways.

Final Thoughts

While there is no reason to immediately suspect COPD if any of these early warning signs are present, it is wise to consider them relative to your past health. If you start noticing any of these signs regularly, follow up with your physician and request that some of the above tests be done.

Information on this page is for reference and educational purposes only. For more information about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), talk to your doctor or primary care provider.

Page last updated: October 15, 2018


About Ryan Anthony: Ryan Anthony, BS, RRT is a registered respiratory therapist and content writer and medical blogger currently located in Los Angeles, California. As a Respiratory Therapist, he performs a wide range of hospital duties including adult and neonatal intensive care, nitric oxide therapy, high-frequency oscillatory ventilation, conventional mechanical ventilation, noninvasive ventilation, BiPAP, CPAP, intubation assistance, bronchoscopy assistance, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, chest physiotherapy, and nebulizer therapy.

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