Not just a ‘smoker’s cough’: 3 symptoms that could be COPDHealth | 10/11/2022
People who smoke know that smoking impacts their lungs. So, when they experience respiratory symptoms such as a cough or shortness of breath, they may think these symptoms are normal and can simply be attributed to smoking. But even for people who smoke, respiratory symptoms are not normal or inevitable – and they could be a sign of a condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
COPD is a common respiratory disease that causes persistent symptoms such as breathlessness, wheezing and chest tightness1. The most common conditions of COPD are emphysema and chronic bronchitis2. Emphysema is a condition that damages the air sacs in the lungs, and chronic bronchitis is an inflammation of the upper respiratory system that usually causes a chronic cough3.
COPD symptoms can be improved with treatment, so if you or a family member or friend are experiencing any of the following, it is important to visit a doctor and get checked.
Common symptoms of COPD
- Shortness of breath
Shortness of breath (or dyspnea) that does not go away is the most common symptom of COPD4
People may feel a sense of increased effort to breathe, chest heaviness, or the need to gasp for air, which can be triggered by exercise and physical activity5. If you or someone you know has recently started experiencing breathlessness, particularly when resting or doing simple activities such as climbing the stairs, this could be a symptom of COPD1.
It can be difficult to exercise when feeling breathless – but it is important to stay active. This is another reason to speak to a doctor as soon as possible about your symptoms, so they can be properly diagnosed and managed.
- Chronic Cough
Another common symptom of COPD, and one of the first people usually notice, is a chronic cough, which may be present throughout the day. Those with a chronic cough may bring up sputum when coughing (a mixture of saliva and mucus) or may have a dry cough6.
People who smoke often think that a chronic cough is ‘normal’ and is simply a natural consequence of smoking6. But no amount of chronic coughing is normal. It could be a symptom of COPD, and should be reported to a doctor.
- Wheezing and chest tightness
Wheezing is caused by narrowing of the airways. As air moves through these narrowed airways when we breathe, it creates the whistling sound we associate with wheezing.7 Wheezing is often accompanied by chest tightness, which can make breathing painful. The severity of these symptoms may vary between days, and even over the course of a single day.6
Diagnosing and treating COPD
COPD can be diagnosed using a simple test called a spirometry. Spirometry works by measuring the amount of air someone can breathe out from their lungs and how quickly they can blow it out.8 They have a mouthpiece that you use to blow into the device. It is a simple test that a doctor can arrange through a referral9.
If you or someone you love is diagnosed with COPD, there are many treatment options that can help with managing symptoms and may even improve disease prognosis. This might include medication, such as bronchodilators or inhaled steroids, exercise, or oxygen therapy that delivers oxygen to help with breathing10. The doctor will be able to discuss these treatments and other management options in more detail during the appointment.
The important thing to remember is that respiratory symptoms like the ones above are not normal, even for people who smoke. They could be a sign of COPD. The good news is that COPD symptoms can be improved with treatment, and the earlier it is diagnosed, the sooner symptoms can be managed. Medication and exercise in particular help to improve disease prognosis. Medication works by reducing swelling and relaxing muscles in the airways to make breathing easier11, and exercise helps blood to circulate around the body and strengthens respiratory muscles12.
Whether someone smokes or not, everyone should have quality care for their lungs. So be sure to book an appointment with a doctor if you or someone you know experience any of these symptoms or are worried about COPD.
Date of preparation: November 2022 / EASYH-2761(1)
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- M. Miravitlles & A. Ribera - Understanding the impact of symptoms on the burden of COPD [Accessed 20 September 2022]
- Myc, A. Lukasz et al. Role of medical and molecular imaging in COPD [Accessed 20 September 2022]
- COPD.net – Understanding Emphysema vs. Chronic Bronchitis [Accessed 21 September 2022]
- D. O’Donnell at al. Dyspnea in COPD: New Mechanistic Insights and Management Implications [Accessed 20 September 2022]
- PMA Calverley - Breathlessness during exercise in COPD: how do the drug work? [Accessed 20 September 2022]
- Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) 2021 report [Accessed 20 September 2022]
- WebMD - Wheezing: Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Remedies. Available at https://www.webmd.com/asthma/understanding-wheezing-basics [Accessed 20 September 2022]
- Asthma + Lung UK - Spirometry and reversibility testing. Available at https://www.blf.org.uk/support-for-you/breathing-tests/spirometry-and-reversibility. [Accessed 20 September 2022]
- Patient – Spirometry - What is a spirometry test? Available at https://patient.info/chest-lungs/chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-disease-leaflet/spirometry [Accessed 20 September 2022]
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute – COPD Treatment. Available at https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/copd/treatment. [Accessed 20 September 2022]
- COPD Foundation - COPD Treatment and Medications. Available at https://www.copdfoundation.org/Learn-More/I-am-a-Person-with-COPD/Treatments-Medications.aspx. [Accessed 20 September 2022]
- American Lung Association - Physical Activity and COPD. Available at https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/copd/living-with-copd/physical-activity#:~:text=Exercises%20help%20your%20blood%20circulate,exercise%20are%20right%20for%20you. [Accessed 20 September 2022]
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