Even though pneumonia is known to be treatable in most patients, those with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) are at a higher risk of not only developing pneumonia, but also of suffering serious and life-threating complications.

The Link between COPD and Pneumonia

Those with COPD are known to be at a higher risk of pneumonia and other respiratory infections. What makes pneumonia especially worrisome for those with COPD is the increased risk of life-threatening exacerbations and respiratory failure. Pneumonia and COPD work as a sort of a vicious circle in that one can greatly impact the other, making symptoms more severe and dangerous for the patient. COPD and pneumonia are known risk factors for respiratory failure so when you combine the two it is especially serious. A paper in a 2002 issue of the American Family Physician states that 70 to 75 percent of COPD exacerbations are caused by bacterial infections such as Streptococcus pneumonia and Haemophilus influenza.

Is it Pneumonia or a COPD Exacerbation?

In later stage COPD, it can be hard to tell the difference between the symptoms of worsening COPD or an exacerbation and pneumonia because they are often quite similar.

Common symptoms in COPD, which get worse in later stages and during exacerbations include:

  • cough
  • shortness of breath
  • sputum production
  • wheezing
  • chest tightness

Pneumonia causes all of the same symptoms as listed above, but can also cause:

  • high fever
  • chills and shaking
  • chest pain when coughing or breathing

More common in COPD exacerbations and pneumonia is:

  • inability to speak due to a lack of air
  • change in color of your mucus that could be green, tan, yellow, or bloody
  • high fever
  • inability to get your usual relief from your COPD medication

Emergency Treatment

Regardless of whether you are experiencing a COPD exacerbation or have developed pneumonia, getting medical treatment as quickly as possibly is key. The sooner you are able to receive treatment and get your symptoms under control, the less damage that pneumonia is able to cause your lungs which are already damaged from COPD.  This damage can include inflammation that further limits your airflow and causes irreversible damage to your lung tissue. The most serious complication of pneumonia is, as stated earlier, respiratory failure.

Acute respiratory failure is one of the leading causes of concerns when a COPD patient develops pneumonia. Acute respiratory failure is a medical emergency that requires treatment in a hospital, usually in an intensive care unit. The goal is to get treatment as quickly as possible and get oxygen into your lungs and your other oxygen-starved organs and remove carbon dioxide from your body. You will likely be placed on oxygen for ventilation right away, either through tubes in your nostrils or a mask that sits over your nose and mouth. In some cases a patient is placed on a ventilator when they are not able to breathe properly on their own.

In some more severe cases oxygen will need to be given via a surgical procedure called a tracheostomy which creates a hole through the front of your neck and into your windpipe. A breathing tube is placed into the hole so that you can breathe.

Getting the oxygen you need is crucial not just to get you of your crisis but also to try to limit the lasting effects which can greatly increase your risk of other life threating complications, such as like pulmonary hypertension, cardiovascular issues, and more.

What You Can Do

If you suffer from COPD then you should speak to your doctor about getting the pneumonia vaccine to reduce your risk. The Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute also recommends getting a flu shot. The flu shot reduces your risk of pneumonia since many people develop pneumonia after having the flu. Along with vaccines, they also recommend staying as healthy as possible through a good diet and exercise to improve your immune system will also lower your risk of complications as well as help keep your COPD symptoms under control and even reduce your risk of exacerbations.

Notify your doctor of any changes in symptoms and seek emergency treatment when your medication doesn’t help your symptoms or if your symptoms are severe and your shortness of breath is making it difficult to function.