Early Signs of COPD: How to Know When It’s Time to Get Tested

Half of those living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may not know it.

It’s true! Up to 24 million Americans may be living with COPD, but only around half of these men and women (11 million) have been clinically diagnosed, per the American Lung Association.

That’s a lot of people who could be enjoying better lives through treatment or other natural remedies.

But why aren’t more people finding out?

It’s simple. COPD isn’t easily diagnosed in its early stages and it has symptoms that can be mistaken for other illnesses, especially Asthma.

If you’re concerned about you or a loved one, it’s important that you find out as soon as possible. The sooner you begin getting treatment and making appropriate life changes, the better you will meet the challenges of COPD.

Please use the following list as helpful guidelines, but see your physician as soon as possible if you have any concerns regarding your health.

What are early signs of COPD?

Chronic coughing and shortness of breath are the two main symptoms to watch out for. You will notice this most often after you’ve exerted yourself, such as walking up stairs. If these two issues persist over time, you should consult your physician.

Some of the early signs of COPD may include:

  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activities
  • Chronic cough that may produce mucus
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Needing to heavily clear throat first thing in the morning
  • Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Fatigue, lack of stamina
  • Swelling in ankles, feet or legs

Your chances of having COPD are significantly higher if you’re a smoker, a former smoker, or have spent prolonged exposure to workplace fumes.

Paying close attention to these warning signs can help you to get a jump on treatment.

Do you have Asthma instead?

It’s easy—and common—to mistake Asthma for COPD. Symptoms of COPD are often misread or simply overlooked. Shortness of breath and wheezing are prime examples of symptoms easily dismissed as less serious.

So is it COPD or Asthma?

Asthma most commonly occurs during childhood and remains steady during your lifetime, if not minimizing, while COPD tends to develop in people over the age of 40, and only worsens.

You should also consider that Asthma and COPD have strictly different triggers.

  • Asthma triggers can include common allergies like pollen, mold, or pet hair; cold air; or exercise
  • COPD aggravations include respiratory tract infections like pneumonia and the flu

It’s important to know that 40% of those with COPD also have Asthma. It’s a common risk factor for developing COPD.


Being aware of the early symptoms of COPD listed above is important, but only a doctor can diagnose COPD.

Simple tests you will be given as part of diagnosis include lung function tests that will measure your breathing strength and consistency. These tests also help rule out other conditions.

Want to learn more? Here are some leading resources on COPD:

If you believe you have symptoms, please consult your doctor to determine if you have COPD.