Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a collection of lung diseases that cause blocked airways and make breathing difficult. It can result in serious complications.

People with COPD are more likely to develop pneumonia. Pneumonia is particularly dangerous for people with COPD by causing an increased risk of respiratory failure. This is when your body is either not getting enough oxygen or isn’t successfully removing carbon dioxide.

Some people aren’t sure if their symptoms are from pneumonia or from worsening COPD. This can cause them to wait to seek treatment. This is dangerous. People with COPD should call their doctors immediately if their symptoms are worsening or they believe they have pneumonia.

Some people aren’t sure if they’re experiencing a flare-up of COPD symptoms, known as an exacerbation or symptoms of pneumonia.

Many of the symptoms people experience with pneumonia are also symptoms they experience with COPD. These can include shortness of breath and tightening of your chest. Often, these similar symptoms can lead to under-diagnosis of pneumonia in COPD patients.

People with COPD should watch carefully for symptoms that are more distinctive of pneumonia. These include:

  • chills
  • shaking
  • increased chest pain
  • high fever
  • headaches and body aches

People who experience both COPD and pneumonia often have trouble speaking due to a lack of oxygen. They may also have sputum that is thicker and darker in color. Normal sputum is white. Sputum in people with COPD and pneumonia can be green, yellow or blood-tinged. Prescription medications that typically help COPD symptoms won’t be effective for pneumonia symptoms.

Seek immediate medical attention if you experience the above symptoms associated with pneumonia. You should also see a doctor if your COPD symptoms become worse. It’s important to be aware of:

  • increased difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, or wheezing
  • restlessness, confusion, slurring of speech, or irritability
  • unexplained weakness or fatigue that lasts more than a day
  • changes in mucus sputum, including color, thickness, or amount

Pneumonia and COPD can result in serious complications. Long term and even permanent damage can occur. Early treatment can help decrease these risks. The inflammation from the pneumonia can limit your airflow, which can further damage your lungs. This can progress into acute respiratory failure, which can be fatal.

Pneumonia can cause deprivation of oxygen, or hypoxia, in people with COPD. This can lead to other complications, including:

  • damage to the kidneys
  • cardiovascular problems, including stroke and heart attack
  • irreversible brain damage

People with a more advanced case of COPD are at a higher risk for serious complications from pneumonia.

People with COPD and pneumonia are normally admitted to the hospital for treatment. Your doctor may order chest-x-rays, CT scans and blood work to diagnose pneumonia. They may also test a sample of your sputum to look for infection.

Your doctor may prescribe you antibiotics that will likely be administered intravenously. You may need to continue taking antibiotics after you leave the hospital.

Your doctor may prescribe glucocorticoids. They can reduce the inflammation in your lungs and help you breathe. These can be given through an inhaler, a pill, or an injection.

Your doctor will also prescribe medications in nebulizers or inhalers to further help your breathing and manage the symptoms of COPD.

Oxygen supplementation and even ventilators may be used to increase the amount of oxygen you’re getting.

Early detection of pneumonia in people with COPD is important. An early diagnosis usually yields better outcomes and fewer complications for COPD patients. The sooner you get treatment and get your symptoms under control, the more you can prevent damage to your lungs.

Studies have also shown patients with COPD exacerbation and pneumonia are more likely to have serious complications in the hospital than those who have a COPD exacerbation without pneumonia.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people with COPD should take steps to prevent pneumonia whenever possible. Regular hand washing is important.

It’s also important to get vaccinated for:

  • the flu
  • pneumonia
  • tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, or whooping cough (TDaP booster)

You should get the flu vaccine annually as soon as it becomes available. Two types of pneumonia vaccines are now recommended for nearly everyone 65 years of age and older. In some cases the pneumonia vaccines are given earlier depending on your overall health and medical conditions, so talk to your doctor. The TDaP booster is usually given every ten years.

Take your COPD medications exactly as prescribed by your doctor. This is key in managing your disease. COPD medications can help lower the number of exacerbations, slow the progression of lung damage, and improve your quality of life.

You should only use over-the-counter (OTC) medications that are recommended by your doctor. Some OTC medicines can interact with prescription medications. Some may make your current lung symptoms worse. They can also put you at risk for drowsiness and sedation, which can further complicate COPD.

If you have COPD, the best thing you can do to prevent complications is to work closely with your doctor. It’s also important to take your medications as directed and get immunized. It’s essential to quit smoking if you haven’t done so already. You and your doctor can work together to come up with a long-term plan to help decrease your COPD exacerbations and your risk of pneumonia.