COPD Complications

Written by Healthline Editorial Team | Published on July 2, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD on July 2, 2014

COPD Complications

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) leads to progressive damage of your lungs and airways. This damage makes it difficult for you to breathe. It also reduces the amount of oxygen you are able to take into your circulation. This means that many of your organs are being deprived of the oxygen they need to work properly. As a result, many complications can arise.

Acute Exacerbations

This is a sudden worsening of COPD symptoms. It is associated with increased inflammation that blocks the airways. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), approximately 80 percent of acute exacerbations are caused by infections.  Other causes include:

  • dust and other pollutants
  • hot weather
  • medications

The symptoms of acute exacerbation are:

  • increased mucus
  • thicker and darker mucus
  • shortness of breath


Exacerbations may happen only a few times per year. They often resolve readily with medication. Their occurrence may increase as the disease progresses. If exacerbations are extreme, respiratory failure can occur. Although the symptoms of an acute exacerbation may resolve quickly, it is important to recognize that exacerbations nevertheless cause permanent damage to your lungs. Frequent exacerbations will cause rapid worsening of your condition.

Heart Complications

Heart Attack or Stroke

COPD increases your risk for heart attacks and ischemic strokes (reduced blood supply to the brain). This risk increases after a COPD exacerbation.

Other Heart Disease

COPD reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood and increases the level of carbon dioxide. Your body makes adjustments to compensate for this in the following ways:

  • Blood vessels in your lungs become narrow. This leads to high blood pressure in your lungs.
  • Your heart beats faster to pump more blood.
  • You breathe faster to try to take in more oxygen.

These can lead to:

  • swelling of the right side of the heart and heart failure
  • coronary artery disease
  • abnormal heart rhythms


Respiratory Infections

COPD increases your risk of getting colds, flu, or pneumonia. This results in even more difficulty breathing and further irreversible lung damage.

Lung Cancer

The smoking that causes COPD also causes lung cancer. Recent studies have shown that COPD is a significant risk factor for lung cancer.


Pneumothorax is a collapsed lung. It happens when air leaks into the space around your lungs, known as the pleural cavity. This creates pressure so your lung cannot expand normally. COPD increases your risk of pneumothorax.


Depression is a common complication of COPD. Approximately 40 percent of people with COPD experience depression.  Depression is more likely to occur in people with severe COPD than those with mild forms.

Other Complications

Other complications of COPD include the need for a breathing machine and oxygen therapy, severe weight loss and malnutrition, and sleep problems.

Long-Term Outlook

There is no cure for COPD. It is a chronic illness, which means it is long term. Unfortunately, it usually gets worse over time. It is essential that you stop smoking. Smoking will cause COPD to get worse more quickly. If your disease is diagnosed early and treated early (and you don’t smoke), you can slow the progression. You will not be able to undo the damage that has already been done, but you can slow down the worsening of symptoms. When COPD becomes severe, breathing difficulty will make most activities a challenge. Proper treatment can help make you more comfortable.

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