Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease damages your lungs. It makes you short of breath, gives you intense, lingering, coughs, and really bumps up your mucus production. Because it’s harder for you to clear your lungs, bacteria, dusts, and irritants are more likely to stick around. This makes you more vulnerable to respiratory infections — like pneumonia, cold, and flu. Not only do these respiratory infections damage your lungs, they make your already bad breathlessness worse. Respiratory infections can also cause a COPD flare-up — also known as an exacerbation — which can be severe and might cost you a trip to the hospital.
Respiratory infections can cause symptoms ranging from mild to severe in anyone, whether or not they have COPD — but COPD patients will usually be hit harder than folks without lung disease. The kind of bacteria that cause the infection, your overall health, and your age are all factors in how serious your symptoms will be.
Here's what you should watch out for, so you can get in touch with your doctor right away.
It's suddenly more difficult to breathe
COPD features shortness of breath already, of course, but if you're suddenly battling worse breathlessness, this may point to a lung infection. Never ignore this. Call your doctor.
Pneumonia can get so bad that you might need a supplemental oxygen tank to breathe. If it gets very serious, you may have to breathe through a tube that is inserted into your airway. You may also experience very quick and shallow breaths (tachypnea) and a very quick heartbeat (tachycardia), which could also indicate that you have a lung infection.
Your cough is worse
Constantly coughing, is not uncommon for COPD patients. However, if your cough starts getting worse than it usually is — often a sign of increased phlegm that your body is working hard to get rid of — you might be developing a lung infection.
Your phlegm has a different color, smell, and thickness
While COPD already increases your body's phlegm production, lung infections can really send the amount of mucus you have to deal with through the roof. Not only does the amount of mucus change, your mucus may take on a green or rusty color and may even have some blood in it. Your phlegm could also become thicker, stickier, and smell worse than usual.
You suffer chest pain
A stabbing pain in your chest could be caused by inflammation from pneumonia or other lung infections. This pain can sometimes be described as pain just on one side that worsens with deep breathing — the medical term for this is pleuritic chest pain.
Pleuritic chest pain has many potential causes besides a lung infection, and you may have another medical problem, whether it's lung-related or maybe even heart-related. In rare cases, you could suffer a heart attack as a result of a lung infection. If you’re feeling any kind of pain in your chest contact your doctor right away.
You're dealing with a severe fever
A normal body temperature can differ from one person to the next. The average body temperature is around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit or 37 degrees Celsius, however. A fever, a temperature 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, might mean that you have a lung infection. You could also feel severe shivering or chills.
You could be hypothermic
Just because you don’t have a fever doesn’t mean you don’t have a lung infection. If you’re experiencing a lower than normal body temperature (hypothermia), this could mean that you have bacterial pneumonia. Hypothermia could be a signal you have a lung infection if you are 65 and older or you have a particularly weak immune system.
COPD can leave patients feeling really tired, particularly old people. Together with COPD, a lung infection can make you feel really drained. You may also feel more fatigued because you are more out of breath than usual.
You can even develop sepsis
Sepsis, a serious complication that can arise from infections, is also sometimes called blood poisoning. It can strike many parts of the body, including the urinary tract, lungs, stomach, and pelvis. The moment your lung infection turns into sepsis, things start to get severe:
- You will urinate less frequently and can even stop urinating.
- Blood pressure can drop to dangerously low levels.
- Thinking is impacted too, and you may be confused. This is particularly common in the 65+ population.
The bottom line
Lung infections can be incredibly dangerous to COPD patients, so being familiar with the potential symptoms is important. As you've seen, lung infections often don't cause any new symptoms, but instead lead to a dramatic increase in the severity of already-familiar COPD symptoms. They can also lead to fevers, confusion, and chest pain, though.
Any time you notice a worsening of existing symptoms or suddenly have new symptoms, don't browse the internet looking for ways to deal. Don't ignore your symptoms, either. Call your doctor, and if you're feeling really bad, even consider the ER a viable option.