Understanding COPD: Symptoms and Diagnosis

Symptoms of COPDSince Philadelphia has a very high rate of COPD, and many of our customers are dealing with the condition, we want to share with you the early symptoms of COPD.

The fact is, early on, COPD may cause very mild symptoms, or none at all.  It’s good to remember too that just because a person has these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean they have COPD.  Likewise, if a person has COPD, they may not have any or all of these symptoms.  Because of this, it’s important to follow up with your health care provider if any of these symptoms linger.

Symptoms of COPD

  • Cough:  a chronic cough (or one that hangs on for a long time) that produces mucus.
  • Breathing difficulty:  Shortness of breath is common, especially when moving around.
  • Wheezing:  This is a whistling or squeaking sound when you breathe in or out.
  • Tightness in chest:  A feeling that the lungs are heavy or have pressure put on them.
  • Weak defenses:  Those who suffer from COPD tend to get colds or flu more often.
  • Swelling:  In advanced stages, COPD can cause swelling in ankles, feet and legs.

Diagnosing COPD

Let’s suppose your friend “Mary” is having some of these symptoms.  She gets sick a lot, and has been coughing on a regular basis for 8 or 9 months.  After talking to you, she decides to get checked out at her family clinic.  After asking a few questions, the doctor decides that Mary needs some testing to see how well her lungs are functioning.  The test he delivers is called a spirometry (spi-ROM-uh-tree) test.

A spirometry test is simple, painless and only takes a few minutes.  After putting a clip on her nose to keep air from escaping, Mary is asked to breathe as hard as she can into a plastic tube, which measures the volume of air her lungs are able to push out.

Two of the measurements the spirometer takes are key:

  • Forced vital capacity (FVC). Once Mary breathes in as deeply as she can, FVC is the most air that she can forcefully exhale.  Mary’s FVC reading is low, so her doctor knows that her breathing is restricted.
  • Forced expiratory volume (FEV-1). This measurement shows how much air Mary can force from her lungs in one second.  FEV-1 shows how severe her breathing problems are, since her low reading means she has some blockage in her airways.

Based on these and other numbers, the doctor provides a diagnosis.  Early diagnosis is so important with COPD.  Lifestyle changes and medications can have a markedly positive effect on the lungs, and can even stop the disease from progressing.  So by all means, if you or a loved one is suffering from these symptoms, talk with your health care provider about your options.


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