COPD Symptoms & Prognosis

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) is a non-specific term for a progressive disease that makes breathing difficult. The cause of COPD can be many things, all of which share one characteristic: they get worse as time passes. That’s the meaning of the term “progressive” as applied to a medical affliction. This particular progressive disease doesn’t draw the headlines like lethal diseases such as malignant mesothelioma but it is much more common and can be just as deadly; COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S.

Cigarette smoking can be the cause of COPD; most people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke. While the term COPD refers generally to a respiratory disorder, there are two specific diseases that are most often associated with it. Those are emphysema and chronic bronchitis, both of which will worsen the patient’s ability to capture oxygen as the lungs degenerate. A COPD diagnosis in the United States assumes the presence of emphysema and/or chronic bronchitis. Most people with COPD are afflicted with both of these pulmonary disorders.

COPD Symptoms

The pulmonary symptoms of COPD are simple and straightforward. They are not dissimilar from those of a common chest cold, except they are not caused by a virus and are not the result of a disease that can be cured.

  • The primary symptom is shortness of breath. The chest feels tight and any level of exertion will leave the COPD patient out of breath.
  • Wheezing is common with COPD: the whistling or squeaking sound lungs make when they are congested.
  • Tightness in the chest: it feels as if the lungs have shrunk and the patient is unable to take a deep breath.
  • A persistent cough that does not come and go as a cough related to a chest cold would. The cough usually produces significant amounts of mucus; this condition usually signals the presence of bronchitis.

Other Respiratory Disorders

Some of the pulmonary symptoms for COPD are common to other diseases. People with asthma will recognize most of them. Respiratory disorders are a regular household occurrence; everyone encounters one occasionally in the form of short-lived afflictions:

  • Common Cold
  • Influenza
  • Sinusitis
  • Tonsillitis
  • Asthma

Occupational Lung Diseases

This category of illness includes afflictions that create similar symptoms due to toxins other than cigarette smoke. They are caused by exposure to hazardous inhalants in the workplace or on remote jobsites. Coal miners are not the only ones at risk for occupational lung diseases; they are only the best known example. Employees working in a car garage, a textile factory, steel or paper mills or a power plant are often exposed to asbestos, which can lead to asbestosis or mesothelioma cancer.

Asbestos can also be found in a wide variety of locations along with other hazardous chemicals, dusts, and fibers that may lead to a lifetime of pulmonary symptoms if not properly diagnosed and treated. Exposure to asbestos fibers or other airborne toxins can trigger COPD, especially when combined with cigarette smoking.

  • Occupational lung disorders are the number one cause of work-related illness.
  • Occupational lung diseases in general are similar to asbestos related afflictions. They are most often caused by repeated, long-term exposure, but can also be the result of a single hazardous occurrence.
  • Smoking increases the likelihood and severity of an occupational lung disease. Any respiratory toxicity will heighten the risk of lung cancer.

A Common and Often Hidden Respiratory Disorder

While COPD may be a relatively new term to many people, the respiratory disorders that are included in COPD are not. COPD is a widespread affliction in this country, impacting a large number of Americans – especially older Americans.

  • More than 12 million people are currently diagnosed with COPD. An additional 12 million probably have the disease and don't know it4.
  • COPD develops slowly, as the lungs are slowly damaged by tobacco smoke and airborne toxins. Because symptoms develop gradually the diagnosis is usually made after substantial damage has been done. Eventually severe COPD may prevent a patient from basic physical activity, making this among the most debilitating of diseases.
  • Most of the time, COPD is diagnosed in middle-aged or older people. It is self-induced, in the sense that the disease isn't passed from person to person.
  • COPD has no cure yet; nor is there a way to reverse the damage. Treatment can only slow the progression of the disease.


  1. American Lung Association,
  2. American Academy of Family Physicians,
  3. Ohio State University Medical Center,
  4. American Heart Lung & Blood Institute,

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