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Living with COPD – Risks, Complications & When to go to the ER

Living with COPD – Risks, Complications & When to go to the ER

Breathing is something we rarely think about, except when it’s hard to do. Unfortunately, breathing can be a daily struggle for more than 16 million Americans living with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

What is COPD?

As its name suggests, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that makes it hard to breathe (Source:

There are two common forms of COPD:

  • Chronic Bronchitis: This form of the disease includes a long-term cough with mucus
  • Emphysema: This disease slowly causes damage to the lungs 

Most COPD patients have a combination of both conditions.

Another disease considered to be COPD is:

  • Refractory Asthma:  “A severe form of asthma, which is a chronic inflammatory disease that causes the airways to swell, become narrow, and produce extra mucus”, source:


COPD Statistics In the United States

COPD is widespread in the United States, according to the latest report, there are:

  • 16 million adults living with a diagnosis of COPD
  • There were 9 million new chronic bronchitis diagnoses in 2017
  • In 2017 there were approximately 3.5 million new emphysema diagnoses 
  • There are more than 7 million ER visits every year due to COPD
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is the fourth most common cause of death in the US
  • COPD is also the fourth leading cause of disability in the country


Unfortunately, a lot of the time COPD symptoms don’t manifest until there’s already significant lung damage. For this reason, an additional 12 million adults could have COPD but just haven’t received a diagnosis yet.

Early symptoms include:

  • Sporadic shortness of breath, especially after rigorous physical activity
  • A mild but persistent cough 
  • Having to clear your throat frequently because of excess phlegm, especially in the morning


As the disease progresses and the lungs suffer damage symptoms worsen, and you may experience the following:

  • More frequent shortness of breath. This can happen with mild physical activity such as going up a flight of stairs
  • Wheezing
  • A feeling of tightness in the chest
  • Chronic cough. The cough can be with or without mucus
  • Expelling mucus from your lungs daily
  • Frequent colds and other respiratory infections
  • Feeling fatigued


In the more advanced stages of COPD, these symptoms become more common:

  • Constant fatigue
  • Swelling in your feet, ankles or legs
  • Unexplained weight loss

Know Where to Go in Case of an Emergency.

Risk Factors of COPD

Many factors can damage the lungs and increase the risk of COPD; these include:

  • Exposure to tobacco smoke
  • Smokers who have asthma
  • Repeated exposure to dust, certain chemicals, or gases at work
  • Exposure to fumes from burning fuel
  • Age: COPD is a degenerative disease that develops over a long period. Therefore, most people are in their 40’s when their first symptoms appear
  • Genetics: The genetic disorder known as an alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, is responsible for some cases of COPD

Complications from COPD

Potential complications from COPD, include:

  • Lung Cancer
  • Respiratory Infections
  • High Blood Pressure in the Lung Arteries
  • Heart Problems
  • Depression

When to Come to Altus ER

You should seek immediate emergency medical care if:

  • Your lips or fingertips turn a gray or bluish color. This is an indicator that your blood oxygen levels are low
  • You have trouble catching your breath or speaking
  • You feel confused or faint
  • Your heart is racing
  • Worsened shortness of breath that does not respond well to your medications or prescribed treatments

The entire month of October is devoted to Healthy Lung Month. At Altus Emergency Centers, we urge you to quit smoking if you are a smoker and to take the necessary precautions at work to avoid exposure to toxic fumes, or chemicals.

If you are living with COPD, please know all our centers are available to treat you if you have a severe symptom flair up.

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