Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lifelong condition that affects breathing. If you have COPD, you must watch out for other lung conditions like pneumonia.
People with COPD are more at risk of developing pneumonia because their underlying condition makes their lungs more susceptible to infection. Additionally, these two conditions appear to make each other worse, which means you will find it even more challenging to breathe.
Fortunately, you can put some precautions in place to minimize the risk of pneumonia. In addition, treatment for COPD and pneumonia can also help.
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COPD and pneumonia are both lung conditions that make breathing difficult. The main difference is that COPD is lifelong, while pneumonia can be treated.
Pneumonia is a respiratory tract illness caused by a bacterial or viral lung infection. You can have pneumonia in one or both lungs.
As the infection worsens, the air sacs in your lungs fill up with more fluid. As a result, it's harder to breathe, and you may notice other flu-like symptoms, such as a fever or bad cough. Because of this, many people mistake pneumonia for a simple cold or flu during the initial stages.
The initial symptoms of pneumonia appear flu-like. For example:
Shortness of breath
Chest pain due to excessive coughing
As mentioned, during the early stages of pneumonia, it's easy to assume that you are just experiencing a cold or flu. However, if you have COPD, you need to be more careful and consider seeing a doctor just in case you have pneumonia instead.
For severe cases of pneumonia, which are more likely if you have COPD, additional symptoms you may notice are:
Dyspnea (the feeling that you cannot get enough air into your lungs)
Inability to concentrate
Therefore, you should be vigilant for the above symptoms if you have COPD. Don't hesitate to see your doctor if you have any concerns.
Pneumonia is caused by a viral or bacterial infection in the lungs. For example, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) or influenza (the flu) can cause pneumonia. Additionally, bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae can also cause pneumonia.
Viruses and bacteria that infect the lungs are spread via respiratory droplets from sneezing or coughing. You could get sick and develop pneumonia if you inhale those infected droplets.
COPD is a broad term that covers a group of lung diseases that make it hard to breathe. They typically get worse over time when left untreated.
The symptoms of COPD are:
Shortness of breath that worsens with physical activity
Wheezing (a raspy or whistling sound while breathing)
People who have COPD are also more prone to frequent colds and flu.
If your COPD is severe, you should also watch out for these symptoms:
Swollen feet, ankles, and legs
The two main conditions linked¹ to COPD include emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Emphysema is when there's damage to the lung's walls, making it harder to breathe out. On the other hand, chronic bronchitis is caused by constant inflammation in the lining of the lungs and the presence of thick mucus, making it harder to breathe.
However, there are other contributing factors to COPD too. For example:
Smoking, including second-hand smoke
Inhalation of harmful fumes
There are also some risk factors involved with developing COPD:
People who are 40 years or older are more at risk
Asthmatics are more at risk
Genetics or family history of COPD also puts someone more at risk
COPD and pneumonia both fall into the category of respiratory illnesses. Having one respiratory disease can take its toll on your health. However, when two are present simultaneously, it is certainly not ideal. Since COPD already makes breathing difficult, the presence of pneumonia can make breathing even more challenging than it was before.
So even if you suspect it's just a cold or flu, you should still check in with your doctor, especially if your breathing worsens. Regardless of the cause, it's still good to seek an early intervention before the situation worsens.
But that aside, if you have COPD, you have an increased risk² of developing pneumonia. That's because COPD compromises the condition of the lungs and causes the production of more mucus, which is ideal for harboring infections.
When left untreated, these complications are likely to arise:
Lower respiratory tract infections
Greater susceptibility to having influenza
Heart problems or failure
Pulmonary hypertension (increased pressure in the lungs)
Treatment for pneumonia includes antiviral or antibiotic medications, and the type of medication depends on your infection. For example, bacterial infections require antibiotics that can target a specific bacteria. In contrast, antiviral medications must target the particular virus you have.
These treatments can help clear the pathogen that is causing your pneumonia. Getting onto this treatment is better sooner rather than later, for you may find it harder to recover from pneumonia alongside COPD.
While fighting pneumonia, you must also stay up to date with your treatment for COPD. Treatments for COPD include:
Bronchodilators (inhalers that relax the muscles in your chest, making it easier to breathe)
Corticosteroids³ (inhalers with long-acting bronchodilators)
Oxygen therapy (for severe cases)
Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors⁴ (reduced inflammation in the airways)
Theophylline⁵ (second-line treatment to ease chest tightness and shortness of breath)
The best way to reduce your risk of developing pneumonia is to stay up to date with your pneumonia vaccine.
You can also prevent your pneumonia from worsening by seeking early medical intervention. For example, you could ask your doctor to run tests for pneumonia and, if possible, start an antibacterial or antiviral medication.
If you have COPD, you have an increased risk of developing pneumonia. When these illnesses are present simultaneously, they can severely impact your breathing and your overall health. Therefore, you should not hesitate to see your doctor; otherwise, your symptoms could worsen.
If you have COPD, you have an increased risk of developing pneumonia because COPD is detrimental to the condition of your lungs. For example, COPD can cause your lungs to produce more mucus, which is an ideal setting for harboring bacterial or viral infections.
What is COPD? | National Blood, Lung, and Blood Institute
Theophylline | NIH: National Library of Medicine