COPD symptoms, risk factors, and workplace accommodations

More than 16 million Americans have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and millions more may have it but don’t recognize the symptoms until later stages of the disease. COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs, making it hard to breathe. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the two most prevalent conditions that contribute to the development of COPD. 

Below, we look at common COPD symptoms and risk factors, and possible workplace accommodations that take your COPD into consideration.

COPD symptoms

COPD makes it harder to breathe, and at first, symptoms may be mild. You might even mistake them for a common cold, but as symptoms progress and get worse, they become much more difficult to ignore. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms below or think you might be at risk for COPD, it’s important to reach out to your physician as soon as possible. 

COPD symptoms include: 

  • Chronic cough
  • Shortness of breath, especially while doing basic everyday activities
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Chest tightness
  • Fatigue
  • Producing a lot of mucus
  • Wheezing

When your COPD symptoms suddenly worsen, it might mean that you’re having an exacerbation, which is severe. A COPD exacerbation, also known as a COPD flare-up or episode, occurs when your COPD symptoms get worse than usual and may continue to get worse without extra treatment. Warning signs that an exacerbation is beginning can be different for each person. Having a COPD action plan – a written agreement that spells out how to handle your symptoms as your condition changes, tailored specifically to your experience with COPD, and covers a full range of events, from when you feel good to if you need emergency medical care – can make it easier to know when to call your doctor or get emergency help.

COPD causes and risk factors

The main cause of COPD is smoking, but nonsmokers can get COPD too. The chemicals in cigarette smoke weaken your lungs' defense against infections, narrow air passages, cause swelling in air tubes, and destroy air sacs, which are all contributing factors for COPD. The most significant risk factor for COPD is long-term cigarette smoking. The more years you smoke and the more often you smoke, the greater your risk. People exposed to large amounts of secondhand smoke, pipe smokers, cigar smokers, and marijuana smokers are not exempt, either.

COPD also occurs in people exposed to fumes from burning fuel for cooking and heating in poorly ventilated homes. Long-term exposure to environmental factors like air pollution, as well as chemical fumes, vapors, and dust in the workplace, can harm the lungs. 

A very small number of people have a rare form of COPD called alpha-1 deficiency-related emphysema, a genetic condition that affects the body's ability to produce a protein (Alpha-1) that protects the lungs.

Work accommodations and COPD

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), some chronic conditions are considered to be disabilities, which gives you certain rights if you’re disabled. People with severe cases of COPD can qualify for disability benefits, according to the COPD Foundation. Getting approval for the benefits, however, requires rigorous medical documentation. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has disability listings online for hundreds of medical conditions. This database is used by disability determinations staff when they decide eligibility for benefits. The COPD listing appears in Section 3.02, which covers COPD, chronic bronchitis and emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis and pneumoconiosis, asthma, cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, respiratory failure, chronic pulmonary hypertension, and lung transplantation. The application process for SSA benefits is comprehensive. 

In order to grant approval of disability benefits, “the SSA ideally needs to see medical evidence of breathing decline over time, despite following prescribed treatments,” says the COPD Foundation. Be sure to reach out to your team of physicians to make sense of the charts that the SSA provides, because, for the layperson, they can be difficult to interpret. Your doctor can help you translate the charts that examine breathing capacity alongside body weight, sex, and other factors.

If common COPD symptoms like breathlessness and fatigue limit you from doing what is expected of you on the job, such as being able to move as much as you need to or work a full 8-hour day, the ADA dictates that your employer must make “reasonable accommodations” so that you can perform your job, as long as it doesn’t pose a hardship for the employer. Examples of reasonable accommodations for a person with COPD might include:

  • having a flexible schedule with time allotted for taking medications and attending doctor’s appointments
  • having a smoke-free, chemical-free, and dust-free workplace
  • getting advanced notice about construction and cleaning
  • having a parking space that is a close walk to the worksite
  • being allowed to use a scooter or motorized cart to get around a large work area
  • being allowed to work from home

Looking for support and resources? There are a variety of COPD resources and support networks out there. We share easy-to-access resources for people living with COPD, their families, and their care partners. 

New studies are testing the safety and efficacy of investigational treatments for COPD. People living with COPD are needed to help move this science forward.