What Do I Need to Know About Early Diagnosis of COPD?

Your loved one may have COPD, and you wonder - what is that? And now what? Because you can, take a deep breath. This is COPD, one step at a time.

Helpful Highlights

  • Understand COPD and risk factors.

  • Early detection and testing are crucial because COPD can be misdiagnosed.

  • Managing COPD revolves around avoiding lung irritants.

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What is COPD?

COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, refers to a group of diseases that block airflow and make breathing difficult.

COPD - Emphysema

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are two conditions within COPD and are most commonly caused by smoking, though not always. Your loved one may never have smoked a day in their life but may have been exposed to environmental pollutants, workplace toxins, or severe or persistent respiratory infections. Genetics may even play a role in COPD development.

COPD usually takes several years to develop and can surface long after toxic exposure or quitting smoking.

What can you do for your loved one?

  • Accompany them to visits with their primary care provider and encourage them to talk about changes, as well as offer information on changes you've observed.

  • Observe for subtle changes in demeanor or physical well-being and report the changes.

  • Ask questions.  (see Questions to Ask the Primary Care Provider)

  • Ask the healthcare provider how to keep your loved one as healthy as possible.

  • Ask the healthcare provider how to prevent ER visits or hospitalization.

  • Ask the healthcare provider what would warrant a call to the office or a call to 9-1-1.

Risk factors

Exposure over time to irritants that damage lungs and airways.

  • Irritants are what you breathe every day at home, work, or outside, such as air pollution, pollen and other allergens, secondhand smoke, dust, fumes, and chemicals.

Exposure to tobacco smoke. 

  • The most significant risk factor for COPD is long-term cigarette smoking.

  • 85-90% of COPD cases are caused by cigarette smoking!

  • The main cause of COPD is smoking, but non-smokers can also develop COPD via secondhand smoke.

  • Asthma

  • Genetics

Early Detection

COPD is often misdiagnosed. It takes several years for COPD to develop and most people are at least 40 years old when symptoms first appear.

Diagnosis is based on signs and symptoms (you can help with your observation and input), family and medical history, and exposure to lung irritants – especially cigarette smoke.

Common symptoms at the onset of COPD may include: increasing breathlessness – occurring when exercising at first, waking up feeling breathless, a persistent cough with phlegm that does not go away, and frequent respiratory infections.

Early detection of COPD may change the course and progression of the disease.  


Common symptoms at the onset of COPD may include:

  • Increasing breathlessness – first appearing during exercise or prolonged activity 

  • Waking up feeling breathless (including during the night)

  • A persistent cough with or without phlegm that does not go away 

  • Frequent respiratory infections

  • Sleeping on more than 1 pillow

  • Difficulty taking a deep breath

  • Lack of energy

  • Wheezing

  • Chest tightness


  • Pulmonary (lung) function tests:  Incentive spirometry is a simple test of measurement of how well the lungs work.

  • Arterial blood gas: This blood test measures how well the lungs bring oxygen into the blood and how well the lungs remove carbon dioxide from it.

  • Laboratory tests (blood) – Lab tests are not used to diagnose COPD, but they may be used to determine the cause of your loved one's symptoms.

COPD - Stop Smoking

How to reduce the symptoms and progression of COPD

  • STOP SMOKING.  Quitting smoking is the single most important thing you can do.

  • Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.

  • Be aware of other dangers to the lungs: allergens, chemicals, dust, and fumes at home and in the workplace. Wear a face mask when there is a potential for exposure.

Although COPD is not curable, it is treatable.  Early detection and treatment of COPD can change the course and progression of the disease.

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