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Any respiratory infection will lead to a worsening of COPD symptoms, but the flu is much more serious than a common cold. What do you need to know?

Obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients will certainly know something's up when they come down with a respiratory infection of any kind — not only will you have the signs of the infection in question, your COPD symptoms will also worsen. While the common cold and influenza both make you vulnerable to serious secondary infections, the flu is especially dangerous — and can even be life-threatening.

It's important to know what you're dealing with, then, but because the cold and flu do share common symptoms, this can be a bit tricky. What should you know about telling a flu and cold apart when you have COPD? When should you see your doctor?

What COPD patients need to know about the common cold

A quick refresher

The common cold is more of an umbrella term — more than 200 different viruses can cause cold symptoms, though rhinoviruses are responsible for over half of all colds. An upper respiratory infection, the symptoms the common cold tend to focus around the nose, causing congestion, stuffiness, and sneezing, and also coughing. The fact that people with colds spread their virus around so easily when they sneeze, cough, or blow their nose and then forget to wash their hands, means that colds are really quite contagious. 

For most people, colds last a week or so, and though they're more common during the colder winter months and in spring, it is possible to catch a cold all year round. 

You'll already be (very) familiar with the usual symptoms of a common cold from before you were diagnosed with COPD:

  • Sore throat
  • A runny nose and nasal congestion
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • A headache
  • A hoarse voice
  • Some people also run a mild fever

COPD and the common cold

Catching a common cold will make your preexisting COPD symptoms worse and you'll immediately find it harder to breathe. You'll typically notice:

  • Higher sputum production — and your phlegm will additionally become ticker, stickier, and green, yellow, tan, or stained with blood
  • Your shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing becomes more intense
  • These symptoms will make it hard for you to sleep, so you'll feel tired
  • You feel ill
So, what should you do? While there's a veritable ocean of over-the-counter cold products out there, they won't all be safe for you if you have COPD. Antihistamines, for instance, can interfere with your ability to get rid of your phlegm, and decongestants can raise your blood pressure, which some COPD medications also do. It is, therefore, always best to talk to your doctor about how to handle a common cold before you get one!

The following tips always apply, however:

  • Do not stop taking your regular meds when you catch a cold!
  • Stay hydrated.
  • If using over the counter painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol/Tylenol is generally safe for you, then you can take them to help ease your symptoms.
  • Some people take large doses of vitamin C to treat a common cold. This is safe and may help you recover more quickly.
  • Antibiotics do not treat the common cold itself, since it's a viral infection, but they will be useful if your cold triggers a COPD excerbation. 
  • Most importantly, anytime you're worried or notice a signifcant increase in symptoms, see your doctor! Your doctor will be able to tell you which OTC remedies are safe for you as well, if you haven't discussed this already. 

What COPD patients need to know about the flu

OK, we'll start this with a "too long; didn't read" — the most important things COPD patients need to know about the flu is that it's especially dangerous for them to catch it, that a flu shot is the best way to reduce your odds of ending up with the flu, and that you can get antivirals to reduce the severity and duration of your symptoms if you develop a flu anyway. You also need to be up to date on pneumococcal vaccination, which lowers your risk of complications like pneumonia.

With that out the way, influenza is, of course, an upper respiratory infection that also affects the entire body. It strikes seasonally, during the cold part of the year in each respective hemisphere of the globe. For most of our readers, the flu season will take place between October and May, reaching its height in February. Like the common cold, it's highly contagious as contact with infected droplets in the air, with the bodies of infected people, or with surfaces that contain a flu virus can all make you get it. 

While influenza A and B are most common, they do vary from year to year — the ever-changing strains of flu in circulation explain why people need to get a new flu vaccine each year.  

Influenza could, research indicates, be to blame for up to 70 percent of COPD exacerbations, and having the flu also places you at risk of serious complications such as pneumonia, in part because it is difficult for COPD patients to clear their airways of infected sputum.  

In the general population as well as in COPD patients, the following signs can help alert you that you have a flu rather than just a common cold:

  • Symptoms are much more severe, and they come on suddenly while cold symptoms typically develop more gradually
  • As with the common cold, symptoms include a sore throat, coughing, nasal congestion, and headache. Fever, which is rare in people dealing with a common cold, is typical in those with the flu (although not always present), meanwhile, and the flu also causes all-over body and muscle aches that can be pretty severe. 

In COPD patients, additional symptoms will include:

  • Increased shortness of breath
  • Increased wheezing
  • Severe cough
  • Increased sputum production — your mucus will also have a different color (usually green, yellow, or with bits of blood in it), and is likely to be stickier or more dense.
It is important to be aware of these symptoms even if you have received your annual flu shot (as you very much should), because while the flu shot reduces your risk of catching the flu and leads to milder symptoms if you do get it, it's not 100 percent effective. 

Always let your doctor know right away if you suspect you have the flu, since you belong to an at-risk category. Treatment may include:

  • Antiviral medications that reduce the severity and duration of the flu. These need to be taken within 48 hours of your first symptoms.
  • Inhalers. 
  • Supplemental oxygen.
  • Antibiotics for a secondary infection or COPD exacerbation.
  • In some cases, hospitalization will be required. 

Skip your regular doctor and head straight for the emergency department if you have severe chest pains, a severe headache, shortness of breath not remedied by your normal medications, dizziness, confusion, or intense vomiting. 

Forget about apples — preventative steps may keep the cold, flu, and doctor away

These preventative steps fall into roughly three categories — a healthy lifesyle, specific hygiene steps, and vaccination (against the flu and pneumococcal disease). 

A healthy lifestyle means a healthy and balanced diet that meets your nutritional needs and regular exercise. For COPD patients, other very important aspects of a healthy lifestyle are avoiding environmental allergens and irritants, particularly cigarette smoke and air pollution, and taking your prescribed medications as directed. 

Hygiene steps that help prevent the flu and cold include washing your hands regularly — not just after the bathroom and before and after dinner, but also after spending time in public spaces where you are likely to have contact with viruses. Never touch your face with unwashed hands, as this is how the flu and cold viruses get in. If you cannot wash your hands, hand sanitizers or antibacterial wipes are a good alternative. Steer well clear of sick people, and ask folks you often spend time with to stay away from you when they are sick too; deciding who is sick shouldn't all be on you. 

Vaccine-wise, remember that you don't just really need an annual flu shot (ideally at the very start of the flu season), but you should also be up to date on pneumococcal vaccinations. This prevents diseases caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae, which includes pneumonia. 

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