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 - Northwestern Memorial Hospital - Chicago


Many people—especially people who smoke—will ignore or not recognize the symptoms of COPD. One of the primary symptoms, a chronic cough, may be dismissed as “smokers’ cough.”

Unfortunately, the chronic cough often associated with smoking is not something to ignore. It will not go away on its own, and not treating it can lead to worsening of lung damage. Another common symptom is shortness of breath. Sometimes people attribute this to just getting older. Others will begin to reduce their activities so they don't notice the breathlessness any longer. Becoming more short of breath with regular activities should not be ignored.

Common Symptoms of COPD

  • Cough (often referred to as "smoker's cough")
  • Recurrent bronchitis
  • Shortness of breath or breathlessness during physical activity
  • Wheezing (often described as a whistling sound when breathing)
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of endurance

Although these symptoms are common, not everyone who has COPD will experience them. In fact, some people with COPD experience no symptoms at all in the earlier stages of the disease. These symptoms are not always related to COPD. To find out whether you have COPD, it’s important to see your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis and start treating your symptoms—regardless of what is causing them. Because COPD is a progressive disease, which means it will continue to get worse, and because early detection can greatly improve your quality of life, it is important to consult your doctor for an evaluation of your symptoms.

Symptoms that Require Immediate Treatment

COPD can be life-threatening. There are some symptoms that may require treatment in a hospital emergency room and should not be ignored. If you or someone you care about experiences any of the following symptoms, seek medical care right away.

  • Difficulty catching your breath or talking
  • Lips or fingernails turning blue or grey
  • Feeling less alert mentally
  • Experiencing a fast heartbeat that is not easily explained by exercise or exertion
  • Your current treatment plan to manage symptoms of COPD is not working

Contact Us

If you have or think you may have COPD, we urge you to seek treatment as soon as possible. If you don’t have a physician, and you’d like to make an appointment with someone who understands COPD and how to successfully manage it, you may do so by calling our Physician Referral Department at 1-877-926-4664. You may also request a first time appointment online.

Last UpdateJune 6, 2011