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Recognizing Serious COPD Complications

What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a collection of lung diseases that can lead to blocked airways. This can make it hard to breathe and cause coughing, wheezing, and mucus production.

People with COPD can often develop other conditions and diseases related to COPD.

What are the serious complications associated with COPD?

For those living with COPD, every breath can be difficult. People with COPD can be at risk for serious complications that can not only put their health in jeopardy, but can also be fatal. Here are a few of those complications, along with some tips for preventing them.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia occurs when bacteria or viruses enter the lungs, creating an infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bacterial pneumonia is the most common form of pneumonia in the United States. It’s ranked evenly with influenza as the eighth leading cause of death in the country. The illness is especially dangerous for those with a weakened pulmonary system, such as those who have COPD. For these people, pneumonia can further damage the lungs. This can lead to a chain reaction of illnesses that can weaken the lungs even further. This downward spiral can lead to a rapid deterioration of health in people with COPD.

Overall good health is key to preventing infections in people with COPD. Here are some tips for reducing your risk of infection:

  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially water, to maintain healthy bronchioles while thinning out mucus and secretions.
  • Quit smoking or avoid smoking to maintain a healthy immune system and lung health.
  • Wash your hands consistently.
  • Avoid contact with people you know are ill.
  • Discourage sick friends and family from visiting your home.
  • Get pneumonia vaccines and a yearly flu vaccine.

COPD heart failure

One of the most critical complications of COPD is heart failure. Because people with COPD have lower levels of oxygen in their bloodstream, their heart will often suffer. According to the American Thoracic Society, this can result in severe pulmonary hypertension in a small percentage of patients (less than 10 percent). For many patients, treating COPD can help prevent the disease from progressing to the point where it causes heart failure. Unfortunately, because many of the symptoms of heart failure can be the same as those of COPD, it may be difficult for patients to recognize that they are having heart issues until it’s too late.

The first step to preventing heart failure is to stop the progression of COPD. Here are a few simple ways you can do this:  

  • Engage in mild to moderate physical activity to build up heart and lung stamina.
  • Stick to your COPD treatment plan as directed by your doctor.
  • Give up smoking as soon as possible.

Lung cancer

Since COPD often can be attributed to smoking, it’s not surprising that people with COPD often develop lung cancer. However, researchers have actually pinpointed a connection between COPD and lung cancer that is separate from a person’s smoking history. This is most likely related to the chronic inflammation within the lung. Genetics may also play a role. Since lung cancer is often fatal, it’s important that people with COPD remove factors that further damage the lungs, especially smoking.

Diabetes

COPD doesn’t cause diabetes, but it can make it harder to battle the difficult symptoms of diabetes. One significant complication of having both COPD and diabetes is harmful interactions of COPD and diabetes medications. People with diabetes and COPD may find their symptoms worsened because diabetes can also restrict their cardiovascular system.

Smoking can worsen symptoms of both diabetes and COPD. It’s imperative to stop smoking as soon as possible. Learning to manage your blood sugar, usually with the help of your doctor, can help keep COPD symptoms from becoming overwhelming. Uncontrolled diabetes that causes persistently high blood sugar levels can reduce lung function. Work with your doctor to ensure that the medications they prescribe will work together to treat both conditions. This can help you manage these two diseases at once.

Dementia

The gradual mental decline of many severe COPD patients can be tough on loved ones. Dementia is especially prevalent in older COPD patients, making managing symptoms even more difficult. COPD is its own risk factor for developing dementia. Conditions such as low oxygen, high carbon dioxide, and blood vessel damage in the brain due to smoking all play a role in dementia with COPD.

You can help prevent dementia by taking these steps:

  • Maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Control diabetes and cholesterol levels.
  • Keep your mind sharp by regularly engaging in mentally stimulating activities, such as crossword puzzles and other brain games.

End stages of COPD

COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Doctors are usually unable to give a clear prognosis after a person receives a COPD diagnosis. Some patients live six months, while others live for years. A person’s age at the time of diagnosis and other health conditions weigh heavily into life expectancy. Those with moderate to severe COPD will usually have reduced life expectancy despite their age.

Respiratory failure is the most common COPD-related cause of death. After months, years, or even decades of struggling with lung problems, the patient’s lungs eventually stop working. Heart failure is also a factor for COPD fatalities, with COPD often contributing to heart problems.

What is the long-term outlook?

COPD is a serious condition, but it doesn’t have to be fatal. Knowing the causes, getting treatment early, and understanding how to prevent the disease from getting worse are keys to staying healthy and enjoying a long life.

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