A Caregiver’s Guide to Understanding the Stages of COPD

October 6, 2013
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COPD guideChronic lower respiratory disease (COPD) refers to a group of lung diseases, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and in some cases asthma, that cause breathing difficulties and airflow problems.

COPD guideChronic lower respiratory disease (COPD) refers to a group of lung diseases, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and in some cases asthma, that cause breathing difficulties and airflow problems.

Today over fifteen million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD and in 2011 the disease was the third leading cause of death in the U.S.

Unfortunately the problem is extensive and underestimated – it is thought that another 12 million adults are affected by COPD but may not be aware they have it. 

Since the true prevalence of COPD is grossly underestimated, it’s important to understand the symptoms that accompany the disease in order to be able to intervene early.

What are the stages of COPD?

The stages of COPD are characterized by a measure of lung function, measured by a breathing test called spirometry.  The test shows how much air your lungs can hold and fast you can release air from your lungs. Results are reported as a percentage, with 100% being normal and decreasing amounts representing greater dysfunction.

The stages of COPD include:

Stage I: Mild COPD

In stage 1, lung function may already be abnormal however the person is unaware of it. Breathing tests will show some airflow restriction. Symptoms include chronic cough and mucus. At this stage, most people do not know to seek medical treatment.

Stage II: Moderate COPD

Moderate COPD, or Stage II, sees the worsening of airflow limitation. Shortness of breath upon exertion like climbing stairs appears as a symptom in addition to cough and sputum production. Immune functioning may also be suppressed, so the person may have more difficultly recovering from sicknesses like the flu and common cold. Most people seek medical attention starting at this stage.

Stage III: Severe COPD

A person becomes short of breath after very little activity during Stage III of COPD, also known as Severe COPD, and will notice they are quickly fatigued. Coughing becomes more frequent and the person may cough up mucus. Airflow is severely limited, and at times symptoms will worsen to the point of requiring hospitalization.

Stage IV: Very severe COPD

During the final stage of COPD, quality of life is greatly impaired and symptoms are life threatening. Lung function is less than 30% and the person may require oxygen therapy on a daily basis. This results in complications such as weight loss, cyanosis (blue skin coloring), edema (fluid buildup in legs and feet), chronic respiratory failure, and heart problems.

What suggestions can you offer for helping caregivers spot signs of COPD early on?

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