Can you tell the difference between a common cold and an incurable illness? Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder is the nation’s third leading cause of death, yet the symptoms of COPD often are overlooked because they’re also associated with colds and flu.
A broad disorder that includes chronic bronchitis, emphysema and some types of asthma, COPD is hard to diagnose because its symptoms are “generic,” says Scott Cerreta, director of education for the COPD Foundation.
For example, increased mucus production, which accompanies a cold, also is an indicator of COPD, Cerreta says. Only your doctor can determine whether mucus and chest tightness are from a bacterial or viral infection or something more serious.
If you experience persistent or recurring bouts of the following conditions, consult your doctor.
COPD and asthma both involve tightening of airways, coughing and breathlessness. Research indicates that a genetic deficiency may make some people more susceptible to both conditions. Key differences are that asthma is an allergic response to a specific substance, while COPD is the result of permanent damage to lung tissue. “Asthma will come and go, but COPD is always bad,” Cerreta says. How your symptoms respond to treatment—medication helps asthma but not COPD—will help your doctor make a diagnosis.
Lung damage makes COPD patients more susceptible to severe respiratory tract infections. “It can make for more intense symptoms too,“ says Cerreta, citing a common cold with a stronger cough, increased sputum production or shortness of breath. If you suffer from a cold, the flu, bronchitis or pneumonia more than once a year or your cough lingers after a bout with bronchitis, consult your doctor. Diagnosing COPD early is the best way to treat it.
Do you get six to eight hours of sleep, but wake up feeling tired or nod off when reading the morning paper? Weariness, the result of poor sleep, could be linked to COPD-related conditions. Sleep apnea, a condition characterized by abnormal breathing or pauses in breathing during sleep, is common in many COPD patients. Ongoing sleep problems and an inability to breath properly at night indicate it’s time to get your lungs checked.