COPD: symptoms, signs & causes

12 November 2015

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is the umbrella term for a number of lung conditions, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema.



These conditions make it difficult to get enough air into your lungs, and make you feel breathless, and make you cough.

COPD symptoms include:

  • Breathlessness when you’re resting or active
  • Wheezing, especially when you’re breathing out
  • Feeling that you have a tight chest
  • Coughing
  • Producing more phlegm or mucus than usual
  • Chest infections – which can be caused by bacteria and viruses – can make your COPD symptoms worse
  • Tiredness
  • Weight loss
  • Ankle swelling

If you have chest pain and are coughing up blood, see a doctor as soon as possible.

Find out about the treatments and therapies available for COPD

 “COPD is now the third biggest cause of death worldwide,” explains Dr Nick Hopkinson, Honorary Consultant Chest Physician at Royal Brompton Hospital, COPD expert and medical adviser to the British Lung Foundation (BLF).

“It’s a problem that sneaks up on people, so you need to know what the signs are.

“Getting out of breath when doing activities, not being able to walk as fast as other people, not being able to walk and talk at the same time, or getting out of breath carrying shopping, these are all signs that you should think about seeing your doctor.”

This is especially important if you have a history of smoking, and/or a history of asthma.

There are more urgent warning signs that mean you should see your doctor soon.

“It’s not normal to be coughing up sputum (mucus or phlegm) every day’” explains Dr Hopkinson.

“So if you do this every day, or for a few months over winter, that’s a sign of chronic bronchitis.”

Don’t leave it too late

“The problem is that when people finally go to see their doctor they often have had symptoms for 10 to 15 years, which they’ve attributed to normal ageing or a smoker's cough,” explains Dr Hopkinson. “But if COPD is diagnosed early, your GP can help.

“As well as stopping smoking, which is very important, and keeping as fit as possible, there are inhalers that help with breathlessness.

“One of the big problems with lung disease is that people often retreat from breathlessness. Rather than going to see someone about it they just stop doing the things that make them out of breath.”

“So as well as making them less fit, they get breathless more easily,” says Dr Hopkinson.

“If you’re physically inactive, you’re much more at risk of getting many other health problems that can happen as you grow older. These include diabetes, heart trouble, osteoporosis and fractures.”

“So take breathlessness seriously throughout life, but in your 50s and 60s it’s really important, and is a way of ensuring that you’re as healthy as possible into your 70s and 80s and beyond.”

About COPD

COPD kills about 30,000 people in the UK each year. This is more than any other type of cancer than lung cancer. And those who survive often struggle because their lives are severely affected by COPD.

You may not realise that you have COPD for some time, as the symptoms become worse gradually. Most people with COPD aren’t diagnosed until they’re over 50, although the symptoms may become more troublesome – and obvious – once you’re over 35.

Causes of COPD

As well as chronic (long-lasting) bronchitis and emphysema, other conditions, habits, and even genetics can cause COPD. The main culprit is smoking. COPD is usually found in over 35s, who have been, or still are, heavy smokers.

Read our guide to stopping smoking

You can also develop COPD if you’ve had severe asthma for a long time, or if you’ve been exposed to air pollution and fumes at work for a long time.

If you have inherited the genetic condition Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, which damages your lungs, you can develop emphysema (a type of COPD). This is unusual, but it’s more likely to happen if you have the genetic condition and smoke.

World COPD Day

November 18th is world COPD Day, and this year the aim is to help anyone affected by this condition to live fuller, more active lives. The British Lung Foundation is launching a new guide – ‘First Steps to living with COPD’, a booklet designed to help people manage their condition. And around the country people will be organizing BLF Big Breakfasts, to help raise money for the charity.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.