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Symptoms of COPD: Cough and shortness of breath

Nearly 16 million adults in the U.S. have COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Many more do not know they have COPD, despite living with the common symptoms of a chronic cough and shortness of breath.

COPD is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and a major cause of disability.

Symptoms of COPD include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Chronic cough
  • And sputum production

If you have any of these symptoms, and they just won’t go away, meet with your primary care provider or a pulmonologist.

What is COPD?

woman coughing / COPD - cough that won't go away
COPD typically develops because of years of smoking or exposure to factors like dust, chemicals and air-borne pollution. In some rare cases, COPD is caused by a genetic disorder.

Your symptoms may seem to be a run-of-the-mill respiratory illness like a cold.

“Symptoms of COPD are chronic or have been going on for a long period of time. Shortness of breath with exertion or cough tend to get worse over time,” said Dr. Nestor Machare-Delgado, pulmonary medicine physician with Marshfield Clinic Health System.

Your medical provider diagnoses COPD and takes detailed medical history and orders a special breathing test called a pulmonary function test. This measures your current lung function and helps to decide which COPD treatment option is right for the patient.

“COPD typically develops because of years of smoking or exposure to factors like dust, chemicals and air-borne pollution. In some rare cases, COPD is caused by a genetic disorder. Long-term exposures to irritants, such as particulate matter, also may cause inflammation, narrowing of the airway and cough,” said Dr. Machare.

COPD treatment options

No matter its cause, lifestyle changes, education and treatment can improve how you feel. There is no cure for COPD. Treatment focuses on managing and treating symptoms.

Helpful tools to manage and treat COPD include:

  • Limiting exposure to irritants by quitting smoking and wearing a mask if you are exposed to dust or chemicals. Frequent mask wearing during winter can prevent frequent respiratory infections that can worsen your COPD symptoms.
  • Preventing infections by hand washing, getting a flu and pneumonia vaccine, wearing a mask and avoiding contact with sick people.

“There are medications that can help,” said Dr. Machare. “It’s really about getting on the right medication that works for you and using it correctly. Currently, we have different long-acting bronchodilators that can improve your lung function and reduce your breathing symptoms with exertion.”

Oxygen also may be needed to treat symptoms in some patients with COPD.

If diagnosed with COPD, it’s recommended you meet with a pulmonary provider at least yearly to be up-to-date on medications and treatments. Discuss with your doctor if pulmonary rehab is right for you.

Pulmonary rehab helps educate patients on their disease

It increases exercise tolerance while being monitored by a team of respiratory therapists, exercise physiologists and medical professionals. Educational sessions also are built into the program.

“The better conditioned you are, the less short of breath you will be,” said Dr. Machare. “With lung disease, you get short of breath easily. The shorter of breath you are, the more difficult it is to function properly. In pulmonary rehab, the goal is to teach individuals how to live well with COPD.”

Outpatients who participate in this class meet twice a week for 60 minutes of supervised exercise with a trained respiratory therapist. It is also known that regular pulmonary rehabilitation involvement could prevent further hospital admission from worsening COPD symptoms.

Marshfield Clinic Health System’s pulmonary rehab program is certified by the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation.

Be in the healthy zone when managing COPD

The goal is to be in the green zone and feeling well through therapy and medication treatment. During this stage, you want to experience:

  • Breathing as usual
  • Ability to do daily activities or exercise
  • Ability to think clearly
  • Ability to sleep well
  • Good appetite
  • Easy ability to cough up any mucus

In the yellow zone, or when you are having a bad day, it’s important to increase rescue and short acting nebulizer or inhaler (bronchodilator) to four times a day. Call your health care team, or nurse line at 1-800-549-3174, or your primary care provider. Yellow zone symptoms include:

  • Increased shortness of breath
  • Difficulty with daily activities or exercise
  • Increased or thicker mucus with color change
  • An increase in coughing
  • A decrease in appetite
  • Difficulty thinking clearly
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Possible fever or chills
  • Feet or ankle swelling

Take your rescue medicine and call your health care provider immediately if you are in the red zone and feel like you are in danger. Call 911 and seek medical care immediately if these symptoms arise:

  • Severe shortness of breath, even at rest
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Inability to cough up mucus

“While there’s no cure, medications or lifestyle changes can help you feel better and slow the progression of COPD,” said Dr. Machare. “Oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehab also may help treat complications and symptoms.”

For questions about COPD, talk to a Marshfield Clinic Health System provider.

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