COPD and pneumonia

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 because it causes 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, which is dangerous.

If you have COPD and think you might be showing signs of pneumonia, call your doctor right away.

Flare-ups of COPD symptoms, known as an exacerbation, can be confused with symptoms of pneumonia. That’s because they’re very similar.

These can include shortness of breath and tightening of your chest. Often, the similarities in symptoms can lead to underdiagnoses of pneumonia in those with COPD.

People with COPD should watch carefully for symptoms that’re more characteristic 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’s 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 sputum, including color, thickness, or amount

Having both pneumonia and COPD can result in serious complications, causing long-term and even permanent damage to your lungs and other major organs.

The inflammation from the pneumonia can limit your airflow, which can further damage your lungs. This can progress into acute respiratory failure, a condition that can be fatal.

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

  • damage to 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. Early treatment can help decrease these risks.

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


Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. These will likely be given intravenously when you’re in the hospital. You may also need to continue taking antibiotics by mouth after you return home.


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

Breathing treatments

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.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people with COPD 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 is needed once as an adult and then you should continue to receive the tetanus and diphtheria (Td) vaccine every 10 years

You should get the flu vaccine each year 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 about what’s best for you.

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 recommended by your doctor. Some OTC medicines can interact with prescription medications.

Certain OTC medications 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, work closely with your doctor to prevent complications. Quit smoking if you haven’t done so already. You and your doctor can come up with a long-term plan to help decrease your COPD exacerbations and your risk of pneumonia.

If you have COPD, you’re at a higher risk for developing pneumonia than those without COPD do. People with COPD exacerbation and pneumonia are more likely to have serious complications in the hospital than those who have a COPD exacerbation without pneumonia.

Early detection of pneumonia in people with COPD is important. An early diagnosis usually results in better outcomes and fewer complications. The sooner you get treatment and get symptoms under control, the less likely you’ll damage your lungs.