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Early Symptoms of COPD

By Lori Newell ; Updated August 14, 2017

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a general term used for medical conditions that make it challenging to breathe. This includes diseases such as asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and other conditions that obstruct the airways. As with many conditions, the earlier you catch it and begin treatment, the better your chances of a positive outcome. However, COPD can be hard to catch in the early stages because it usually does not produce symptoms severe enough for you to suspect that something is wrong, reports the National Lung Health Education Program. Smoking is the most common cause of COPD. If you smoke or believe that you are at risk for this condition, you and your doctor will need to be on the lookout for early symptoms of COPD.

Mild Shortness of Breath

In the early stages of COPD, shortness of breath, also called dyspnea, may be the first sign. You may notice that you get out of breath during activities that normally do not bother you. Unfortunately there is a tendency to brush this off as just being older or out of shape. Any changes to your breathing ability should be discussed with your physician.


A chronic cough or "smoker's cough" is another early warning sign. If you have COPD your cough will be persistent and unrelated to another disease. The American Association for Respiratory Care states that in the early stages your cough may be mild and not produce mucus and you may just dismiss it. In addition, this disease tends to progress very slowly versus coming on abruptly. Along with a chronic cough you should be concerned if you start to get frequent colds, flus or respiratory infections. If you develop wheezing sounds when breathing or your cough starts to produce mucus your condition is worsening.


If your lungs are not working correctly your body will not get the oxygen it needs. If your body is fighting inflammation from damage to the lungs it can zap your energy. This can leave you feeling tired. You may find that your normal level of activity wears you out more than it used to. The Canadian Lung Association warns to not dismiss this as a normal part of aging. While it is normal to feel tired now and again, any change in your energy level should be evaluated. This is critical if you smoke, smoked in the past or have been exposed to pollutants.

Weight Loss

If you start to experience weight loss that you can not explain, your body may be sending you signals that you have COPD. The Cleveland Clinic explains that this happens because when your lungs are working harder to breathe your body uses up more energy. It claims that “..the pulmonary (breathing) muscles in someone with COPD might require up to 10 times the calories needed by a person without COPD.” If your weight has changed with no known reason or you start to lose your appetite, talk to your doctor about testing for COPD.

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