According to the World Health Organization COPD is the third leading cause of death worldwide, behind heart disease and stroke. It currently kills more women than breast cancer and diabetes combined. Over 3 million people die each year of COPD related causes. Despite being such a prolific killer COPD is probably the least recognized and most underdiagnosed disease. It is estimated that approximately 14.2 million people have been diagnosed with COPD but as many as 13 million have COPD and have yet to be diagnosed.
November is COPD Awareness Month and we want to help get those with symptoms to the doctor as soon as possible so that beneficial treatment can begin as soon as possible. The earlier the treatment begins, the easier it is to keep symptoms from worsening.
One obvious sign is shortness of breath. Some patients attribute this to deteriorating fitness levels or have even been told by doctors that they should lose a few pounds even if they are in an ideal weight range. If you become more winded than usual doing ordinary things like walking short distances or climbing stairs, mention it to your doctor. If it becomes difficult to breathe while lying down, it could be an early sign of decreased lung function.
If you notice more mucus production than usual or if it is thicker in texture, it could be a sign of COPD. Your lungs produce mucus as a natural lubricant for airways but COPD patients often produce a large amount and it is sticky in texture, blocking airways instead keeping them moving. If there is blood in your mucus or it is a yellowish color, see your doctor immediately.
If you develop a cough that isn’t caused by a cold or allergies it’s a possible sign of COPD. Talk to your doctor if you have been coughing for a few weeks or longer especially if your cough is disturbing your sleep. A cough that is worse in the morning could be a sign of emphysema or chronic bronchitis, two of the illnesses that fall under the COPD umbrella.
Waking up with a headache could also be a COPD warning sign. If you have decreased lung function, carbon dioxide may build up in your blood leaving you depleted of oxygen and causing head pain. It could also cause you to feel dizzy or lightheaded. If this happens more than once or twice, it’s time to see your physician.
Some early symptoms may seem unrelated to lung function but they are most definitely caused by lack of oxygen. Once such symptom is swollen legs, ankles, or feet. Swelling is caused by fluid buildup. If blood vessels aren’t getting the oxygen they need, they aren’t able to move blood or fluid effectively. Fluid will then settle at the lowest point of your body because the strain on your heart is too great to pump it upwards again. Alert your doctor if you experience swelling in any of your extremities, especially the lower.
Sudden weight loss can be a symptom of illnesses of many kinds, including COPD. Lungs having to strain to move air could be using up more calories than your body is used to, therefore causing you to lose weight. It is estimated that those with COPD can use up to 10 times more calories just breathing than those with healthy lungs. Difficulty eating and loss of appetite are also symptoms of COPD that could result in weight loss.
Pay attention to the signals your body is sending. It may be a nerve-wracking experience to go to the doctor fearing a diagnosis of a serious disease but don’t let denial get the best of you. Your quality of life will suffer by delaying getting an accurate diagnosis so that treatment can begin. Begining pulmonary rehab and getting on supplemental oxygen can go a long way in improving your quality of life. It's still possible to have a full life with COPD if you recieve proper treatment. Please share this article with those you care about so help us greatly decrease the number of undiagnosed COPD sufferers.