Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a surprisingly common disease – and few people realize that it’s one of the leading causes of death. Despite the disease’s prevalence, many people don’t know what, exactly, COPD is. Its symptoms can appear subtle and slowly, taking years to worsen.

This means it can take years before you realize you have COPD. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention1 reports that 15.7 million people in the U.S. were diagnosed with COPD in 2014, and more than half of those diagnosed were surprised; they didn’t know they had it. Do you know if you’re already exhibiting the symptoms of COPD?

What is COPD?

COPD is a disease that encompasses several different chronic breathing disorders, all of which obstruct the airways of your respiratory system. These include emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and, in some cases, asthma. The primary cause of COPD is smoking, but people can also develop COPD from their environment – both air pollution and poor indoor air quality can be harmful.

COPD is also a chronic disease that progresses over time. Untreated, COPD will grow far worse within a few years. With proper treatment, you can learn to manage your symptoms so you enjoy better quality of life.

COPD Can Start Small

The symptoms of COPD can easily be confused with other respiratory problems. Initially, the symptoms may not be very noticeable. Symptoms that might indicate you have COPD include the following, according to the CDC2:

  • Shortness of breath during physical activities
  • Daily morning need to clear mucus from your throat
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Chronic cough
  • Tightness in your chest

Since these signs often mimic common respiratory illnesses such as a cold or asthma, people tend to ignore them. Some of COPD’s more serious symptoms don’t appear until the disease has already progressed.

These Serious Signs Could Be COPD

COPD is a progressive, chronic disease. As it progresses, its symptoms become more severe. Instead of cold-like symptoms and a nagging cough, you’ll discover new problems that might, at first glance, seem unrelated to your respiratory system.

In the later stages of the disease, you may experience unexplained weight loss. You may also find you have trouble breathing in different positions, or that shortness of breath happens with even minimal physical activities. Many people who have COPD also experience chronic fatigue because they aren’t getting enough oxygen. Finally, you might notice that your nail beds or lips have a bluish tinge.

Have COPD? You Have Options

If you think you might have COPD, it’s important to talk to your doctor instead of trying to self-diagnose. Your doctor may talk to you about your medical history and that of your family members. He or she may want to know about your exposure to cigarette smoke, chemical fumes, and other lung irritants. In order to diagnose you, your doctor may order several different tests, including a pulmonary function test, a CT scan, an arterial blood gas analysis, or a chest x-ray.

If you are ultimately diagnosed with COPD, your doctor will discuss the different treatment options for COPD. Fortunately, the disease is treatable – and you can manage your symptoms to slow the progression of the disease.

One way to control COPD is with medication, such as bronchodilators, that help relax your muscles in order to open your airways so you can breathe easier. Oxygen therapy, rehabilitation, and surgery are also options for COPD sufferers. Although cough syrup is sometimes recommended as a treatment for COPD, it’s not an effective one. Instead, you should see a doctor in order to find the best treatment for you.

Now that you know the potential signs of COPD, it is important not to let them linger. If you believe you have symptoms that may potentially indicate you have COPD, it’s important for you to schedule an appointment with your doctor. When you are diagnosed with COPD in its early stages, you might be able to get the proper treatment so that you can slow the progression of the disease. Getting a diagnosis means you can enjoy a longer, healthier life.