COPD and Pneumonia: Get the Facts
Winter is peak flu and pneumonia season and can spell disaster for people who have COPD. Get the facts you need to know about the connection between COPD and pneumonia.
Pneumonia is a threat to your health and possibly even your life when you have COPD. COPD already affects how well your airways exchange oxygen, resulting in symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue. Pneumonia will intensify and worsen those symptoms.
What is pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an infection of the respiratory system that causes an increase in the inflammation of all the parts of your airways and lungs. The infection can be caused either by viruses or bacteria. Viral pneumonia is harder to treat, but is generally milder. Bacterial pneumonia tends to be more severe and longer-lasting than viral pneumonia and is the greatest risk for people with COPD. It's important to understand, though, that even a mild viral pneumonia can weaken your airways so that you become even more at risk for bacterial infection.
If you contract pneumonia, it's likely that you will experience an acute exacerbation, or flare up, of your COPD symptoms. If you do not receive adequate treatment for your pneumonia, it can eventually result in a condition called consolidation. This means that the tiny air sacs at the end of your lungs, called alveoli, fill with fluid rather than air. When that happens, you are not able to send enough oxygen to your body cells. Carbon dioxide also gets trapped in the lungs.
It can be hard to tell the difference sometimes between a COPD flare and a respiratory infection. Symptoms to be on the watch for with pneumonia include:
- A rapidly rising high fever (>101 degrees), with chills/shaking and/or sweats
- Stabbing chest pain
- Increased trouble breathing (more rapid breaths, grunting, straining to breathe)
- A cough that brings up rust-colored or greenish mucus
- Bluish-colored lips and/or nails, also known as cyanosis
The dangers of pneumonia for COPD patients
The combination of COPD with a bacterial infection on top of it can quickly lead to a serious condition. People with COPD not only contract pneumonia more easily because of their already weakened airways and immune system. They also tend to be much sicker and to take longer to recover.
In fact, most people who have COPD and who come down with pneumonia will need to be hospitalized so that their health care team can closely monitor their condition and respond quickly to any changes for the worse.
Can pneumonia be prevented?
The good news is, pneumonia can be prevented. And an ounce of prevention is worth a world of cure! Your best preventive measure is to be vaccinated against respiratory infections that can lead to pneumonia.
- Yearly flu vaccine. The flu itself can cause serious flares of your COPD. But when the flu weakens your airways, you will be at even greater risk of catching pneumonia.
- Periodic pneumonia vaccine. The pneumonia vaccine is also recommended for anyone who has COPD. It lasts for about 5 years. Your doctor can recommend what type of pneumonia vaccine you need and how often you may need a booster.
- Whooping cough vaccine. Most older adults will have received this vaccine as children. But in recent years, we've been learning that the vaccine's effectiveness has worn off in adult years. So, whooping cough infections are making a come back. Check with your doctor about this one too.
Another important preventive measure is frequent hand washing. This is especially important when in public or after exposure to sick people. Even better, stay away from crowds during cold and flu season!
And finally, quitting smoking, if you still smoke, is important. Smoking has a negative impact on the immune system and can only worsen both your COPD and pneumonia.
How to treat pneumonia with COPD
If all your preventive measures do not work sufficiently to keep you from getting pneumonia, then it's important to get prompt treatment. At the first sign that you may have an infection, contact your doctor. You may be able to take your treatment at home, but often times you will need to be in the hospital.
The first line of defense will be some sort of antibiotic. Your health care team will decide what type of antibiotic will work best for you condition. The medication may need to be given via an intravenous infusion.
Besides the medication, your team will closely monitor your heart and lungs, as well as your oxygen saturation levels to make sure you're getting what you need. They may decide to put you on supplemental oxygen (or increase your flow rate if you're already on oxygen) while you recover. You might also be prescribed breathing treatments and other types of respiratory therapy.
Other things you can do to hasten your recovery are to stay as active as you can and drink lots of fluids. Getting up and out of bed will help fluid from pooling in your lungs and will also help you from getting weaker and more de-conditioned. Drinking water will help thin and loosen the mucus in your airways so that it's easier to cough up.
Getting pneumonia when you already have COPD is no joke and not to be taken lightly. For your own health's sake, do everything you can to avoid catching pneumonia in the first place. If your preventive efforts fail, then don't hesitate to get medical attention quickly, before things reach a crisis point.
How has your experience been navigating the healthcare system as someone with COPD?