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The signs of Stage 1 COPD are easily dismissed as the cause of something else, but being diagnosed and treated early on will improve your quality of life over the long-term. What are the six early symptoms of COPD, and how are they managed?

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. 

Early diagnosis is key to your later quality of life, however, so it's important to be able to recognize the signs so you can see your doctor, be diagnosed, and start receiving the right treatment. We'll be looking at six symptoms of Stage 1 COPD that you should never ignore. 

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. 

Other conditions, including asthma, obesity, heart failure, and pulmonary embolism can also make you short of breath, so dyspnea doesn't necessarily mean you have COPD. It does, however, mean you need to see your doctor. 

Treatment

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

Large amounts of mucus (phlegm, sputum) are another characteristic of COPD, specifically chronic bronchitis. This is due to a variety of causes, including increased numbers of mucus-producing cells and a decreased ability to rid yourself of this phlegm. When mucus builds up in the airways, breathing becomes rather hard and patients are also at risk of infection .

Treatment

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

A persistent cough that goes on for weeks and then months is one of the tell-tale signs of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and at first you'll often experience it only in the morning. This is also called smokers' cough. These coughs often produce large amounts of mucus, which can be clear but also the yellow or green that signifies an infection. 

Treatment

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.

4. Wheezing

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. 

Treatment

Quick-relief inhalers (bronchodilators), which open the airways, fight both shortness of breath and wheezing. Avoiding allergens and irritants will also reduce wheezing. 

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.

Treatment

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. 

Treatment

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. 
People with COPD who think they may have the flu (yes, you can catch it even if you have been vaccinated, though it will likely be milder) should always seek medical attention promptly. This is both so you can access antiviral medications, which work best when administered as soon as possible, and so your doctor can keep an eye on you and decide whether you need to be hospitalized.

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