Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario

Dyspnea and COPD

  • Similar to pain, often referred to as the fifth vital sign, Dyspnea should be understood as the sixth vital sign for individuals living with COPD.
  • Dyspnea, the subjective experience of breathlessness, is the most disabling symptom of COPD.
  • As a progressive respiratory disorder, COPD is characterized by progressive airway obstruction precipitating ongoing dyspnea and systemic manifestations including peripheral muscle dysfunction, right heart failure, polycythemia and changes in nutritional status.
  • Although smoking is the major risk factor, much is yet unknown about the causes of COPD. 
  • People living with COPD experience dyspnea on a daily basis. As the disease progresses individuals have an ever-increasing number of acute exacerbation episodes of their illness (AECOPD), averaging 2-3 per year.
Chronic Disease
Nursing Care of Dyspnea: The 6th Vital Sign in Individuals with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
Background Information