Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: Causes, Symptoms, and Non-Emergency Care

October 21, 2020 by ChestMed Pte Ltd.30

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is an umbrella term for a range of lung diseases that are progressive. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis can both result in COPD. A COPD diagnosis can mean you have one or more of the lung-damaging conditions or symptoms of both.

COPD progresses gradually, making it difficult for patients to breathe over time. If you suspect you have COPD or are experiencing some symptoms that point to COPD, it is recommended that you visit a  COPD doctor right away. While the lung damage caused by COPD can’t be reversed, lifestyle changes and medications can help manage the symptoms. 

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis irritates the bronchial tubes. In response, the tubes swell and mucus (snot or phlegm) can build up along the lining. The buildup narrows the tube’s opening, making it hard for the air to get in and out of the lungs.

Cilia, the small, hair-like structures found on the inside of the bronchial tubes typically move mucus out of the airways. The irritation from smoking and chronic bronchitis damages them. The damaged cilia won’t be able to help clear mucus.


Emphysema is the breakdown of the walls of the alveoli (the tiny air sacs) found at the end of the bronchial tubes. The lung can be likened to an upside down tree. The trunk is the trachea or windpipe, the bronchi are the branches, and the air sacs or alveoli as the leaves.

The air sacs have a vital role in transferring oxygen into the blood and the carbon dioxide out. Emphysema destroys the walls of the air sacs, making it hard for the patient to get a full breath.


Smoking tobacco is considered the cause of at least 90% of all COPD cases. Other possible causes include:

  • Air pollution
  • Secondhand smoke
  • Workplace fumes and dust
  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency (genetic disorder)


Some of the most prevalent symptoms of COPD include:

  • Cough with mucus that lingers for a long time
  • Difficulty taking a deep breath
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath when performing regular activities
  • Shortness of breath with mild exercise

Patients that experience one or more of the symptoms mentioned should visit their COPD doctor even if they don’t feel sick. It is advisable not to wait for the symptoms to become severe before seeking emergency care.

If the symptoms are discovered early, your COPD doctor might change the medications or treatment to relieve the symptoms. As a general rule of thumb, never stop taking medications without talking to your doctor first. 

It is also important to keep in mind that symptoms or warning signs can be different or the same from one flare-up to another.  

Non-Emergency Care

Get in touch with your doctor within 24 hours if you notice the following changes in your health:

Shortness of breath that occurs more often or becomes worse.

  • Inability to walk far
  • Needing more pillows or having to sit up to sleep because of breathing difficulty
  • Becoming more tired because patient is working harder to breathe
  • Waking up short of breath more than once every night
  • Needing inhalers or breathing treatments more than usual

Mucus (sputum) changes including:

  • Presence of blood
  • Changes in color from white to yellow to green
  • Odor
  • Changes in amount or thickness of sputum
  • More wheezing or coughing
  • Swelling in the legs, feet, or ankles that doesn’t go away after a nights sleep
  • Unexplained weight gain or loss of 2 pounds each day or 5 pounds a week
  • Fever (especially with flu or cold symptoms)
  • Frequent dizziness or morning headaches
  • Confusion, extreme fatigue, and weakness that lasts for more than a day


ChestMed Pte Ltd.


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