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.

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 also be fatal. Here are a few of those complications, along with some tips for preventing them.

Pneumonia occurs when germs like bacteria or viruses enter the lungs, creating an infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, common viral causes of pneumonia are the influenza virus, which causes the flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The CDC also notes that a common cause of bacterial pneumonia is Streptococcus pneumoniae.

Pneumonia is 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, it can cause further inflammatory damage in the lungs.

This can lead to a chain reaction of illnesses that can weaken the lungs even further and 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 tobacco smoking to maintain a healthy immune system and lung health.
  • Wash your hands consistently.
  • Avoid contact with people you know are ill with respiratory infections.
  • Discourage sick friends and family from visiting your home.
  • Get a pneumonia vaccine and yearly flu vaccine.

One of the most critical complications of COPD is heart failure.

Because people with COPD have lower levels of oxygen in their bloodstream and because lung function is so closely intertwined with heart function, their heart will often be affected when their lungs are diseased.

According to the American Thoracic Society, this can result in severe pulmonary hypertension to the point of right-sided heart failure occurring in 5 to 10 percent of people with advanced COPD.

For many people, adequately treating COPD can help prevent the disease from progressing to the point where it causes heart failure.

But because many of the symptoms of heart failure can be the same as those of COPD, it may be difficult for people to recognize that they’re having heart issues.

The first step to preventing heart failure is to slow 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.

Since COPD often can be attributed to smoking, it’s not surprising that people with COPD are also at a greater risk of developing lung cancer.

However, smoking may not be the only connection between COPD and lung cancer. Exposure to other chemicals in the environment that irritate the lungs may cause a person to be prone to developing COPD or lung cancer. Genetics may also play a role.

Since lung cancer is often fatal, it’s important that people with COPD avoid factors that further damage the lungs, especially smoking.

COPD doesn’t cause diabetes mellitus, but it can make it harder to manage the difficult symptoms of diabetes. One significant complication of having both COPD and diabetes is the potential for certain medications that are used for treating COPD to adversely affect glucose control.

People with diabetes and COPD may find their symptoms worsening because diabetes can also do damage to their cardiovascular system, which can carry over and affect their pulmonary function.

Smoking can worsen symptoms of both diabetes and COPD, so 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. Unmanaged diabetes that causes persistently high blood sugar levels can lead to reduced lung function.

Work with your doctor to ensure that the medications they prescribe will work to treat both conditions with minimal adverse effect on either. This can help you effectively manage these two diseases at once.

The gradual mental decline of many people with severe COPD can be tough on loved ones. Cognitive impairment, which occurs in those with dementia, is especially prevalent in older people with COPD, making managing symptoms even more difficult.

COPD is a risk factor for developing dementia. Conditions such as low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels can harm the brain due to COPD, and additional cerebrovascular damage caused by smoking also plays a role in developing dementia with COPD.

You can help prevent dementia by taking these steps:

  • Maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Manage diabetes and cholesterol levels.
  • Don’t smoke tobacco products.
  • Keep your mind sharp by regularly engaging in mentally stimulating activities, such as crossword puzzles and other brain games.

COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Doctors are usually unable to give an exact prognosis after a person receives a COPD diagnosis. Some people may live only a matter of months, while others live for years.

Life expectancy depends greatly on a person’s age at the time of diagnosis and other health conditions. Those with moderate to severe COPD will usually have reduced life expectancy despite their age.

Respiratory failure is a common COPD-related cause of death. After months, years, or even decades of struggling with lung problems, the lungs eventually stop working altogether.

Heart failure is also a factor for COPD fatalities, with COPD often contributing to heart problems.

COPD is a serious condition, but there is the potential that its progression can be slowed with timely and correct medical care. Knowing the causes, getting diagnosed and started treatment early, and understanding how to try to prevent the disease from getting worse are keys to staying healthy and enjoying a long life.