Understanding the Risks of COPD and Pneumonia

The Dangers of COPD and Pneumonia Together

COPD and pneumonia are different diseases, but they are connected. If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the damage to your lungs makes your more vulnerable to getting pneumonia. Also, if you develop pneumonia, you are at an increased risk of complications.

For people with lung disease, such as COPD, it’s helpful to understand what pneumonia is and how it can affect chronic lung disease.

What Is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia involves an infection in the lungs. It may affect only one lung or both. It can be caused by viruses or bacteria. Less often, pneumonia can develop due to a fungus. Pneumonia causes inflammation in the airways, and the lungs become filled with fluid and pus.

The symptoms of pneumonia can vary in severity from mild to life-threatening. Typical symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath

Is It Pneumonia or COPD?

Many of the same symptoms also occur in people with COPD. It can be difficult to tell whether symptoms are from pneumonia or a COPD exacerbation. If you have COPD and develop a worsening of symptoms, it’s essential to see a doctor for a proper diagnosis.

To diagnose the condition, your doctor will perform a physical exam including listening to your lungs. A chest x-ray will also be done to check for signs of inflammation. Blood tests to determine if an infection is present along with a sputum sample analysis will also be performed.

Difference Between COPD and Pneumonia

COPD and pneumonia may have some common symptoms, but they are very different conditions. COPD is a chronic condition that involves damage to the air sacs. It is most often caused by cigarette smoking. Pneumonia also affects the air sacs, but it develops due to an infection.

It can be difficult to differentiate between a flare-up of COPD symptoms and pneumonia, especially at first. But there are some key differences that may help someone tell the difference between the two conditions. Some key differences in symptoms may include:

  • Fever: Although not everyone with pneumonia develops a fever, it is common.
  • Chest or back pain: Pneumonia often causes pain in the chest or back. While COPD may cause chest tightening, it is a different quality of pain than pneumonia.
  • Changes in mucus: Changes in mucus production, such an increase in the amount, color, and thickness can be a sign of a lung infection.
  • Chills, nausea, or vomiting: Those symptoms are often a sign of an infection, not just a flare-up of COPD.
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What Happens if You Have COPD and Get Pneumonia?

Pneumonia can lead to complications even in people without chronic lung disease. But if you have COPD and get pneumonia, you are at an even greater risk of developing serious complications.

People that have COPD already have damaged airways and decreased lung function. Gas exchange including getting enough oxygen in and carbon dioxide out is also impaired if you have COPD.

Inflammation from pneumonia can decrease airflow and further damage the lungs and make breathing even more difficult. Having pneumonia also makes gas exchange worse leading to hypoxia. Some people with COPD and pneumonia develop respiratory failure. Pneumonia can also progress to sepsis, which is a massive infection that can lead to organ failure and be fatal.

According to research in the Journal of Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases, people with pneumonia that also had COPD had more severe pneumonia, increased rates of hospitalizations, and worse outcomes than then patients without COPD.

COPD and Pneumonia Treatment

COPD and pneumonia treatment may vary depending on how severe symptoms are and the cause of the infection. Because people with COPD are at an increased risk of complications from pneumonia, they may require hospitalization for the condition.

Certain treatments for COPD and pneumonia are geared towards clearing up the infection, preventing complications, and decreasing symptoms.

Treatment may include the following:

  • Antibiotics: Antibiotics are often given if pneumonia is due to a bacterial infection. Depending on the severity of pneumonia, antibiotics may be given orally or intravenously. Antibiotics may need to be continued even after a person leaves the hospital.
  • Steroids: Steroids decrease inflammation that can occur with both COPD and pneumonia. Steroids may be given through a nebulizer, intravenously, or orally.
  • Oxygen: COPD can lead to decreased oxygen levels. Inflammation in the lungs due to pneumonia can further interfere with oxygen levels. Oxygen therapy may be prescribed to increase oxygen levels in the body and make breathing easier.
  • Bronchodilators: Bronchodilators to treat COPD and pneumonia are usually administered through a nebulizer. Bronchodilators relax the muscles of the airways, which leads to dilatation or widening. As the airways dilate, it makes breathing easier.
  • Mechanical ventilation: If pneumonia becomes severe, the air sacs fill with fluid, which leaves little room for gas exchange. Breathing may become so difficult, assistance is needed. When pneumonia leads to respiratory failure, intubation and mechanical ventilation are often needed.

Preventing Pneumonia if You Have COPD

Research published in the International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease states that pneumonia is often present in people that are hospitalized for COPD flare-ups. People with COPD are at 16 times the risk of developing pneumonia the first year after diagnosis compared to people without COPD. Having pneumonia along with COPD is associated with higher mortality rates.

Because of the increased risk of developing pneumonia and higher chances of complications, people with COPD should take precautions to prevent the infection. Consider the following suggestions to prevent pneumonia:

  • Regular handwashing: Be sure to wash your hands often to decrease your risk of infection.
  • Get a flu shot: The flu can lead to complications, such as pneumonia. Getting an annual flu shot decreases your risk.
  • Ask your doctor about getting a pneumonia vaccine: Depending on your age, your doctor may recommend you get a pneumonia vaccine.
  • Keep your immune system strong: Eat a well-balanced diet, get regular exercise, and enough sleep, which all help keep your immune system strong. The stronger your immune system is, the better you may be able to fight off infections including pneumonia.
  • Avoid crowds during flu season: If possible, limit exposure to crowds during the winter months when the flu season is at its highest.
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