Respiratory Conditions Linked to COPD

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: July 2015.

How is COPD linked to other respiratory conditions?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a disease that affects the lungs and breathing system (also called the “respiratory system”). People with COPD very often have other respiratory conditions:

  • Respiratory infections
  • Flu
  • Pneumonia
  • Collapsed lung
  • Lung cancer

What are respiratory infections?1,2

People with COPD have lungs that are weakened due to the disease. This makes them more likely to get respiratory infections, flu, and colds. Any of these can be harmful for people with COPD because they make it even more difficult to breathe than usual. They can also cause more damage to the lungs.

Some respiratory infections can cause patients to have a COPD attack (also called an “exacerbation”). These can be very dangerous and might even require treatment in a hospital. Infections that cause COPD attacks are also called “acute bronchitis.”

A cold is an infection that is caused by a virus. Colds are very easily passed on from person to person. Common symptoms of a cold include:

  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing

Colds are usually not very harmful for people with COPD. However, many exacerbations begin with a common cold that turns into a more serious infection.

Symptoms of a serious respiratory infection are:

  • Increased amount of mucus
  • Change in mucus color from clear to yellow, green or brown
  • Breathlessness
  • Cough
  • COPD patients who have a cold that develops any symptoms of a more serious infection should contact their healthcare provider right away.

What is the flu?2,3

The flu is caused by something called the “influenza” virus. Like a cold, it is very easy to catch the flu from another person who has it.

Symptoms of the flu usually begin suddenly and last longer than symptoms of a cold. They include:

  • Fever
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Muscle aches
  • Sore throat
  • Runny/stuffy nose
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing (without mucus)
  • Headache

Getting the flu can be very harmful for people with COPD – especially people with severe COPD. To lower the chance of getting the flu, people with COPD should:

  • Try to avoid being around people who have the flu
  • Get a flu shot every year
  • Tell their healthcare providers if they develop any signs or symptoms of the flu

What is pneumonia?2

Pneumonia is a very serious type of respiratory infection. The air sacs in the lungs become swollen and inflamed by bacteria or a virus. The air sacs can fill up with fluid and make it hard to breathe.

Healthcare providers usually need to use a chest x-ray to find out if a person has pneumonia. Symptoms of pneumonia are:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Increase or decrease in amount of mucus
  • Change in mucus color to yellow, green or red
  • Coughing blood
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Fever

For people with COPD, pneumonia can be very dangerous. If a person with COPD has any signs of pneumonia, it is important to contact a healthcare provider right away.

What is a collapsed lung?2

A collapsed lung happens when air leaks from the lung and enters the space between the lung and the wall of the chest. The pressure of the air between the chest wall and the lung causes part of the lung to collapse. A collapsed lung sometimes happens during lung surgery. It can also be caused by COPD.

If the collapse is only a small part of the lung, then the lung will usually heal itself. If it is a larger collapse, then the person might need to be treated in the hospital to fill up the lung with air again.

Is lung cancer linked to COPD?1

People with COPD have a higher risk of getting lung cancer. One reason for this is that lung cancer and COPD share a common cause – cigarette smoking.

People with COPD who have lung cancer usually receive the same kinds of cancer treatment as people without COPD. However, sometimes COPD patients cannot have some kinds of surgeries to treat lung cancer because of the reduced lung function caused by COPD.

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