COPD Warning Signs: How to Know If It’s an Emergency

These symptoms require immediate medical treatment.

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung condition where the airways become damaged, making it harder to breathe over time.

The symptoms of COPD develop slowly, and many people don’t recognize the signs until they’re in the later stages of the disease. That’s because people who experience milder symptoms may brush them off as a sign of “just getting older.” But COPD is much more serious than it seems: It is a major cause of disability—and the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S.

At first, milder symptoms may limit your ability to do routine activities, like climb stairs or go for a jog. These COPD symptoms may include:

  • Ongoing cough

  • Shortness of breath

  • Wheezing

  • Excess phlegm

  • And chest pain.

Some people may self-treat these symptoms with lifestyle adjustments, such as taking the escalator instead of the stairs. However, if you don’t know you have COPD and are not treated properly, the condition may get worse.

Severe COPD may prevent you from doing basic activities, such as walking, cooking, or taking care of yourself. That’s why it’s incredibly important to see a doctor if you suspect COPD—especially if you experience these more severe symptoms:

  • Swelling in your ankles, feet, or legs

  • Weight loss

  • Or lower muscle endurance.

Other COPD symptoms are more serious and require medical attention ASAP. Seek emergency care if:

  • You can’t catch your breath or talk

  • Your lips or fingernails turn blue or gray (a sign of low oxygen level in your blood)

  • Your heart is beating fast

  • Or people around you notice you are not mentally alert.

These symptoms will likely require in-hospital treatment.

If you have COPD, you can lessen your chances of an emergency by checking in with your doctor about your status. Certain lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking if you smoke, and treatments can help slow the progression of the disease—and help you breathe easier.