Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD is a condition in which a person's lungs become scarred, leading to a difficulty in breathing. There are four main stages of this disease, and there are some distinguishing symptoms you should watch for if you have an elderly loved one whom you believe may be at risk for this disease.
Stage 1 is the mildest form of the disease. There are minor signs such as a shortness of breath occasionally, but nothing that would be too obvious to the casual observer. Frequently people with stage 1 of COPD do not even know that they have the disease. At this stage people with the disease typically have lung function of greater than 80% of the expected function for a non-diseased lung.
When in stage 2, a person will begin to experience moderate to severe breath shortages when engaging in an activity that causes exertion. There may be coughing present, but not always. Generally, it is during stage 2 that people realize something is wrong and seek out medical help. In stage 2 a person will typically have 50-80% of the expected lung function.
A severe shortness of breath--even without significant exertion--is the major symptom of this stage. There may or may not be a cough, and people suffering from stage 3 COPD have a difficult time engaging in exercise. They will usually suffer from fatigue because the body is not getting the oxygen it needs as freely as it should. A lung with stage 3 will function at 30-50% of the normal lung function.
Stage 4 COPD involves a significant decrease in the quality of life of those it afflicts. People with the disease at this stage often have to fight to breathe, and the disease can be considered life-threatening at times during this stage. A lung with stage 4 will function at less than 30% of normal function.
Symptoms of COPD start with minor ones and, as the disease progresses, so too do the symptoms. The disease is frequently asymptomatic until after significant damage to the lungs has already occurred.
Minor symptoms include a minor cough (which may or may not produce mucus). This cough is frequently--but not always--worse in the early morning or during exercise. Sufferers will also exhibit wheezing (although wheezing alone does not necessarily mean someone has COPD).
Some more moderate symptoms include a shortness of breath, especially during any rigorous activity. This shortness of breath can also afflict sufferers of COPD during times of relatively low activity levels and even during rest periods.
Fatigue is common among COPD patients. The muscles are unable to get the oxygen they need; further, the body strains to rid itself of the excess carbon dioxide it produces. Because the lungs have to work harder to maintain the required oxygen levels, fatigue frequently sets in.
Weight loss is common as the disease advances. This is primarily due to the lungs working harder than usual and burning excess calories. Sometimes fatigue is a factor, as people who are overly fatigued may find it difficult to eat the food they require.
Headaches in the morning are common signs of excess carbon dioxide, and many people begin to suffer swelling in their feet as the overstressed heart struggles to maintain adequate circulation. The swelling in the extremities is actually caused by blood pooling there.
Finally, be aware that if a loved one suffers from COPD he or she will be more susceptible to other infections. The body will be tired from fighting for air and the immune system will not be as effective as it once was.
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COPD can take years to fully develop. If an elderly loved one exhibits any of the symptoms discussed here--or if you have any other reason to believe he or she may have a breathing issue--be sure to seek medical attention immediately.
Jovinelly, Joann. COPD: Symptoms and Stages. Available at http://www.healthline.com/health/copd/stages#Overview1. Last accessed October 28, 2015.
Myers, Wyatt. The Stages of COPD. (Last updated 2/19/2013). Available at http://www.everydayhealth.com/copd/the-stages-of-copd.aspx. Last accessed November 2, 2015.