Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a common respiratory condition involving the airways and characterized by airflow limitation. COPD causes high resource utilization with frequent clinician office visits, frequent hospitalizations due to acute exacerbations, and the need for chronic therapy (eg, supplemental oxygen therapy, medication).

Correct diagnosis of COPD is important because appropriate management can decrease symptoms (especially dyspnea), reduce the frequency and severity of exacerbations.

There are three typical ways in which patients with COPD present: 

  • Patients who have an extremely sedentary lifestyle but few complaints require careful questioning to elicit a history that is suggestive of COPD. Some patients unknowingly avoid exertional dyspnea by shifting their expectations and limiting their activity. They may be unaware of the extent of their limitations or that their limitations are due to respiratory symptoms, although they may complain of fatigue. 
  • Patients who present with respiratory symptoms generally complain of dyspnea and chronic cough. The dyspnea may initially be noticed only during exertion. However, it eventually becomes noticeable with progressively less exertion or even at rest. The chronic cough is characterized by the insidious onset of sputum production, which occurs in the morning initially but may progress to occur throughout the day. The daily volume rarely exceeds 60 mL. The sputum is usually mucoid but becomes purulent during exacerbations.
  • Patients who present with episodes of increased cough, purulent sputum, wheezing, fatigue, and dyspnea that occur intermittently, with or without fever. Diagnosis can be problematic in such patients. The combination of wheezing plus dyspnea may lead to an incorrect diagnosis of asthma. Conversely, other illnesses with similar manifestations are often incorrectly diagnosed as a COPD exacerbation.

Learn more about COPD by visiting the American Lung Association or the American College of Chest Physicians.

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