The first stage of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the mildest — and while you will have some symptoms, you won't initially know what's wrong, yet. You may simply think you're dealing with a common cold or seasonal allergies, rather than something you need to seek seek medical attention for.
1. Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
We've all felt it after a strenuous workout, at high altitudes, or in very cold weather — but when you're often short of breath under normal circumstances, even if your dyspnea isn't that severe, is one of the early warning signs of COPD. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema can both lead to breathlessness, as damaged lungs have to work harder to get enough air.
Those who are diagnosed with COPD can expect to be advised to take the following steps to manage shortness of breath:
- Medications, particularly short-acting (or "relief) bronchodilators (inhalers) like salbutamol. They won't do much to slow the progression of COPD, but will make you feel a lot more comfortable.
- If you are still smoking, your doctor will strongly advise you to quit immediately. Not only will it make you feel less breathless very soon, stopping smoking will also slow the progression of COPD.
- It may seem counter-intuitive, but regular exercise is very important for COPD patients, as it helps you improve circulation, increase oxygen levels, and reduce your symptoms in the long run. Better stamina also means you are less likely to be out of breath from everyday activities.
2. More mucus
Treatment focuses on allowing you to expel your mucus better. Ways to clear your mucus are more effective right after you use your bronchodilator:
- Deep coughing means first taking a deep breath and holding it for a while, then mindfully and strongly coughing using the muscles in your abdomen.
- Huff coughing means taking a moderately deep breath, and then coughing three times in rapid succession, again with the help of your abdominal muscles.
- In postural drainage, you assume a variety of postures more conducive to clearing mucus. Your doctor can show you how.
- Chest physiotherapy involves your healthcare provider or a friend or partner lightly "pounding" on your chest or back to help you clear phlegm.
- Expectorants — over the counter medications designed to help you cough more so you can clear your mucus — may seem like an obvious choice, but research is unclear on the benefits of expectorants for COPD patients. Please discuss this one with your doctor.
- Steaming, honey, and drinking hot drinks are home remedies that may help.
3. A persistent (chronic) cough
What can you do about this? Because your cough actually serves an important purpose, helping your body expel mucus, don't be tempted to take over the counter antiussives and see your doctor instead.
They will determine how productive your cough is and what can be done to help you cope, for instance by:
- Teaching you how to make the most of your cough, in ways we already looked at when we discussed mucus.
- Advising you to increase your fluid intake to thin your mucus and make it easier to get rid of.
- They may advise an expectorant (to help you cough more) or antiussive (to suppress coughs), but it's best not to take them without consulting your doctor.
- Bouts of coughing can cause bronchospasms, for which you will be prescribed a bronchodilator (inhaler) if you have COPD.
Wheezing is caused by tight and narrow airways and often associated with shortness of breath. You'll hear what many describe as a whistling sound — but to me, it sounds more like an old bicycle wheel going around and around, and I'd imagine a very small rodent in distress might make that kind of noise, too.
You don't need to wheeze to be diagnosed with COPD, and if you do wheeze, asthma is another possible diagnosis. Wheezing does mean you need to see your doctor.
5. Quick to tire
Persistent tiredness or fatigue — or simply being quick to tire from physical activities that previously didn't cause any problems — can also be a sign of COPD. That may sound strange at first, but when you consider that the damaged lungs of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may not be able to supply the rest of their bodies with adequate oxygen, it all makes sense. There's more, though. Shortness of breath and insomnia related to breathing difficulties also, of course, contribute to fatigue. While this may be so mild that you hardly notice it during Stage 1, when combined with some of the other symptoms, fatigue is part of a larger picture that should send you to your doctor if you remain undiagnosed but now suspect COPD.
How can you cope with fatigue and try to increase your energy levels? Let's see:
- Regular exercise is key; even if your shortness of breath and fatigue make you feel like you couldn't or shouldn't possibly work out, exercise actually increases energy levels.
- The right medications, which allow you to breathe better, will improve your sleep quality.
- A healthy and balanced diet will leave you feeling more energized than a junk-food diet.
6. Increased vulnerability to respiratory infections
COPD patients are more vulnerable to respiratory infections such as the flu and even the common cold — and that's bad news, because if you do catch a respiratory infection, you are also more likely to suffer complications such as pneumonia (itself another respiratory infection, of course, either viral or bacterial). In addition, respiratory infections that aren't usually a big deal for healthy people will also worsen your COPD symptoms, like shortness of breath, wheezing, and sputum production.
What can be done?
- Preventative medicine is always better — get your annual flu shot, but also stay up to date on your pneumococcal vaccination against pneumonia.
- Wash your hands regularly and never touch your face with unwashed hands, as that's one common way for respiratory infections to spread.
- Avoid sick people and big crowds.