The lung condition chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects a person’s ability to breathe. COPD is often the result of many years of smoking cigarettes. Other lung irritants can also cause the condition. Serious and even life-threatening complications can arise from COPD, one of which is pneumonia.

Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs that can strike at any age. Inflammatory states that can cause pneumonia include:

  • viral infection
  • bacterial infection
  • inhaled particles or liquids
  • fungal infection

Pneumonia is dangerous, because it reduces the amount of oxygen in the body. Without oxygen, cells can begin to die. Life-threatening complications can develop in people with COPD. It can be fatal if not treated.

People with COPD and other chronic lung conditions have an increased risk of developing pneumonia. This is because infections are more common when the lungs are already weakened. Risk factors include an immune system that isn’t working properly, and if the body is less able to filter viruses and bacteria out of the air.

Signs of pneumonia can include:

  • shortness of breath that seems to get worse
  • sudden inability to catch your breath
  • feeling congested for more than a few days
  • coughing up an unusual amount of dark yellow or green mucus
  • fever
  • chills
  • ongoing fatigue

If you think you have pneumonia, it’s very important to see your doctor. You doctor will listen to your chest through a stethoscope to determine if pneumonia is causing your symptoms. The stethoscope will help them to detect any crackling sounds when you breathe. They may also tap on your chest to listen for other unusual noises.

Treatment of pneumonia depends on its cause. If your doctor suspects pneumonia, they may order one of the following tests:

They may also run other tests to help determine the location and cause of the infection.

If a bacterial infection caused your pneumonia, then antibiotics will likely be the first treatment. Some people with bacterial pneumonia, especially those in an outpatient setting, may be prescribed amoxicillin (Amoxil). Other medication options include doxycycline (Adoxa), clarithromycin (Biaxin), or azithromycin (Zithromax). Your symptoms should improve within two days. It’s crucial to take antibiotics exactly as directed, and to take all of them, even after you begin to feel better. Stopping a course of antibiotics early can allow the bacteria to come back stronger than ever.

If you have viral pneumonia, there may be antiviral medications you can take if your infection is severe. Your doctor will prescribe an inhaled or oral steroid if you have COPD, regardless of the cause of the pneumonia. Or you may simply need to use your regular inhaler more often.

If pneumonia is not caught early, it can result in acute respiratory failure. Treatment must occur immediately to save the lungs from permanent damage. Pneumonia treatment may include a stay in an intensive care unit (ICU). A ventilator can speed oxygen to deprived cells and eliminate excess carbon dioxide.

If you have COPD, doing your best to prevent pneumonia is one way to live better. On option is getting a pneumonia vaccine. This vaccine protects against a bacteria called Streptococcus pneumonia. This type of bacteria causes a pneumonia most often in older adults and those with chronic lung disease.

A yearly flu vaccine is another prevention measure. Because illnesses like influenza can quickly lead to pneumonia in people with COPD, preventing the flu can keep you healthy.

If you smoke, try to quit. The link between smoking and COPD is well-known. Smoking is also a risk factor for pneumonia.

Keep yourself as healthy as possible by washing your hands often, and staying away from sick friends and family members. It’s okay to ask visitors to come back another time if you notice they have any symptoms of illness. Always remember that you are your own first line of defense against getting sick.

Learn more: The pneumococcal vaccine »