COPD and Pneumonia: Symptoms, Complications, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention


People with COPD are more likely to develop pneumonia which causes an increased risk of respiratory failure. This happens when your body is either not getting enough oxygen or not successfully removing carbon dioxide.

October 16, 2017

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of lung conditions that interfere with normal breathing, including chronic bronchitis, bronchiectasis, emphysema and alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency. These diseases cause a chronic, permanent and typically progressive obstruction of airflow in the lungs. This causes blocked airways and make breathing difficult.
People with COPD are more likely to develop pneumonia which causes an increased risk of respiratory failure. This happens when your body is either not getting enough oxygen or not successfully removing carbon dioxide.

Symptoms When You Have Both COPD and Pneumonia:

Many of the symptoms people experience with pneumonia, such as shortness of breath and tightening of your chest are also symptoms they experience with COPD. Most often, these similar symptoms can lead to under-diagnosis of pneumonia in COPD patients.
The symptoms that are more distinctive of pneumonia for the people with COPD includes:

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

People who experience both COPD and pneumonia have

  • trouble speaking due to a lack of oxygen
  • sputum that is thicker and darker in color. It can be green, yellow or blood-tinged

Prescription medications that usually help COPD symptoms won’t be effective for pneumonia symptoms. if you experience the above symptoms associated with pneumonia, immediate medical attention should be given.
If your COPD symptoms become worse, consult a doctor. You should pay attention if you have

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

Complications of Pneumonia and COPD:

Pneumonia with COPD can result in serious complications. Early treatment can help decrease the risk of long term and permanent damage. 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 with COPD can cause deprivation of oxygen, or hypoxia which can lead to other complications, including:

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

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

Diagnosis and Treatment of Pneumonia in People with COPD:

People with COPD and pneumonia are normally hospitalized for treatment. To diagnose pneumonia chest-x-rays, CT scans and blood test will be done. A sample of your sputum will also be tested to look for infection.

  • The prescribed antibiotics will be administered intravenously. You may need to continue taking antibiotics after you leave the hospital.
  • Glucocorticoids can be prescribed reduce the inflammation in your lungs and help you breathe which can be given through an inhaler, a pill, or an injection.
  • Medications in nebulizers or inhalers can be prescribed to help your breathing and manage the symptoms of COPD.
  • Oxygen supplementation and even ventilators may be used to increase the amount of oxygen you are getting.

Early detection of pneumonia in people with COPD is very important. The sooner you get treatment and get your symptoms under control, the more you can prevent damage to your lungs and avoid further serious complications for COPD patients.

Prevention of Pneumonia for the People with COPD:

People with COPD should take steps to prevent pneumonia whenever possible such as regular hand washing.
It is 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. Pneumonia vaccines are recommended for nearly everyone 65 years of age and older. These could be either Prevnar 13 (PCV13) or Pneumovax 23 (PPSV23). In some cases the pneumonia vaccines are given earlier depending on your overall health and medical conditions on doctor's precription. The TDaP booster is usually given every ten years.
Your COPD medications should be taken exactly as prescribed by your doctor. This plays an important role 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.

Some over-the-counter (OTC) medicines can interact with prescription medications. Some may make your current lung symptoms worse. They can also develop drowsiness and sedation, which can further complicate COPD. To avoid all these things, you should only use OTC medications that are recommended by your doctor.

If you have COPD, the best thing you can do to prevent complications is to take your medications as directed by your doctor, get immunized and quit smoking. You can work with your doctor to come up with a long-term plan to help decrease your COPD exacerbations and your risk of pneumonia.