Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) - Symptoms

COPD is a common condition that mainly affects middle-aged or older adults who smoke. Many people do not realise they have it. Most people with COPD don't have any noticeable symptoms until they reach their late 40s or 50s.

Symptoms of COPD

Common symptoms of COPD include:

  • increasing shortness of breath. This may happen at first when you exercise. You may sometimes wake up at night feeling short of breath
  • a persistent chesty cough with phlegm that never seems to go away
  • frequent chest infections
  • persistent wheezing

The symptoms will usually get worse over time and make daily activities difficult. Treatment can help slow the progression.

Sometimes your symptoms might get suddenly worse. This is known as a flare-up or exacerbation. It's common to have a few flare-ups a year, particularly during the winter.

Other symptoms of COPD

Less common symptoms of COPD include:

  • weight loss
  • tiredness
  • swollen ankles from a build-up of fluid (oedema)
  • chest pain and coughing up blood. These could be signs of another condition, such as a chest infection or lung cancer

These other symptoms only tend to happen when COPD reaches a more advanced stage.

When to get medical advice

Talk to your doctor (this could be your GP or hospital doctor) if you have persistent symptoms of COPD, especially if you're over 35 and smoke or you used to smoke.

There are several conditions that cause similar symptoms. These could be asthma, bronchiectasis, anaemia and heart failure. A breathing test can help find out if you have COPD.

There's currently no cure for COPD. But the sooner treatment begins, the less chance there is of severe lung damage.

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 9.