Do You Have COPD? The Biggest Risk Factors And Symptoms To Look For

The Bad News About COPD

Did you know that chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects more than 16 million Americans and is the third leading cause of death by disease in the United States, according to the American Lung Association? Those that suffer from COPD will often experience serious long-term daily complications as a result of the condition, which presents most commonly as shortness and difficulty of breath. 1

When discussing COPD, which is classified as a single disease, it is important to understand that COPD can take many forms and includes a more broad umbrella of conditions, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In addition to the day-to-day symptoms that present with COPD, it can also cause additional risk in the long term by increasing the risk of even more severe conditions, including pneumonia, heart attack, and lung cancer. Beyond the physical symptoms, there is a mental component to COPD, which can be challenging to quantify but is none the less serious; living with constant shortness of breath can keep you from being active and doing the things you love. 2

The Good News About COPD

There is no question that COPD is serious enough that it warrants close attention, but it’s not all doom and gloom. For all of the negative effects of developing and living with COPD, it is critical to understand that COPD is both preventable (to an extent) as well as treatable.

There are several prominent risk factors associated with COPD that can be avoided in order to decrease your odds of encountering complications from COPD in the future. This risk generally increases with age. Understanding these risk factors can not only help you plan and make better lifestyle choices, but they can also be a primary tool in identifying if you might benefit from seeking a potential diagnosis and treatment.

If your lifestyle and employment history do meet some of the criteria outlined as risk factors for developing COPD, the next step is to review the symptoms of COPD and reflect on if they may have a presence in your life. The symptoms in and of themselves do not indicate you have the disease, but presenting a number of them will help you decide if you are a candidate to seek additional information from a medical professional. 3

We have outlined the major risk factors and symptoms of COPD below, along with a list of the most common presenting symptoms.

Risk Factors For COPD

The following are the significant risk factors associated with COPD. It is important to note that although these risk factors do indicate a higher likelihood of disease, they need to be considered in context with presenting symptoms, and your doctor can only make an actionable diagnosis.

  • Regular exposure to tobacco smoke, especially in conjunction with asthma
  • Regular exposure to industrial dust and chemicals, typically in occupational settings
  • Regular exposure to heat fumes, often from cooking or heating areas with poor ventilation
  • Age. Risk generally increases with age, starting at around age 40
  • Genetics. Some evidence of genetics especially elevating the risk among smokers

Symptoms Of COPD

If you have noticed the following symptoms, especially in conjunction with each other, it is wise to consult a doctor for additional information and screening. The following symptoms (or lack thereof) do not necessarily indicate the positive presence of COPD but do correlate often enough that they should be taken seriously. Symptoms often present day to day, but those suffering from COPD may also experience them to an increasing level at specific periods, known as exacerbations.

  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath, especially when active
  • Mucus buildup in the lungs that regularly necessitate clearing of the throat
  • Chronic mucus-producing cough
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Low energy, even after rest
  • Swelling of the legs, ankles, and/or feet 4

What To Do If You Think You May Suffer From COPD

If you identify with the risk factors and symptoms listed above, you must reach out to your doctor and request more information. Because COPD can get worse over time, it is essential to get a head start on a diagnosis and treatment plan. There are several lifestyle changes you can make that could mitigate the symptoms and effects of COPD, as well as a variety of both short and long term treatments that could be available to you.

Often, bronchodilators are prescribed as a short-acting treatment and work to loosen tight muscles in the lungs that could be causing some symptoms. Also, more long-acting dilators called corticosteroids can be used if symptoms are initially improved with the bronchodilators. Antibiotics and antivirals are often prescribed to treat complications stemming from COPD, including pneumonia. Lastly, a variety of vaccines can be utilized to help mitigate the risks of living with COPD, including annually for influenza, as well as a pneumococcal vaccine. 5


Living with COPD can present a number of debilitating symptoms, as well as cause additional risk for further complications. As we get older, our risk for COPD increases, which means that keeping a close eye on your health and monitoring periodically for the risk factors and symptoms of COPD can help you identify it early. Modern medicine has created a number of treatments for COPD that allow those who suffer from it to live longer and with fewer symptoms, but, like most aspects of our health, early intervention is critical for the long term management of the disease.

If you feel you are currently living with COPD or have a particularly high risk of developing it in the future, you must consult a doctor. Regardless, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and staying active and free from regular smoke or particle inhalation can go a long way to preventing the disease altogether.

[1] Learn About COPD [2] Chronic Lung Disease [3] COPD [4] COPD Exacerbation [5] COPD Treatment

Written by Samuel Hill