Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) reduces a person’s ability to breathe. It also increases the risk of pneumonia.

Understanding the link between these two conditions ensures prompt treatment.

In this article, we assess the link between COPD and pneumonia and how both conditions impact a person’s life expectancy.

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People with COPD are more likely to have pneumonia, and having the two conditions can negatively affect a person’s outlook.

COPD weakens the respiratory system, increasing vulnerability to pneumonia. Because people with COPD already have weakened airways and immune systems, they are more likely than people without COPD to die of pneumonia.

One study found that 36.1% of first-time hospitalizations for COPD exacerbations were related to pneumonia. This rate was lower upon subsequent visits.

People with COPD who develop pneumonia have worsening breathing and usually require hospitalization. It typically takes them longer to recover from the infection than otherwise healthy people without COPD, and they are more likely to develop serious complications.

What is COPD?

COPD negatively affects the functioning of the airways and lungs. It includes two distinct conditions: emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Emphysema destroys the air sacs in the lungs. As emphysema progresses, the air sacs become weak and floppy, making it more difficult to provide the body with oxygen.

Chronic bronchitis inflames the tubes that carry air to the lungs. People with chronic bronchitis also produce larger than usual volumes of mucus.

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a group of lung infections that can be bacterial, viral, or fungal. People with pneumonia develop inflamed air sacs filled with fluid. This makes breathing more difficult and may reduce oxygen levels in the blood, which can be fatal.

Pneumonia may also spread throughout the body, causing life threatening systemic infections. About 50,000 people die of pneumonia each year in the United States.

Smoking, infection, and exposure to airborne pollutants are the main risk factors for COPD.

Risk factors for pneumonia other than COPD include:

  • Exposure to bacteria or viruses: These are the most common causes of pneumonia in healthy populations. COVID-19 and the flu are common viral causes.
  • A weakened immune system: People with HIV or AIDS, cancer, and those with suppressed immune systems have a higher risk of pneumonia.
  • Other conditions: Diabetes, hepatic disease, and kidney disease can all weaken a person’s immune system and increase the risk of pneumonia.
  • Other respiratory disorders: Other respiratory conditions such as tuberculosis can cause pneumonia.
  • Inhalation of foreign bodies: Breathing food, stomach contents, or water into the lungs can cause a type of pneumonia called aspiration pneumonia.

Strategies that can reduce the risk of developing pneumonia include:

  • frequent hand washing, particularly during cold and flu season.
  • vaccination against infections, including COVID-19, the flu, whooping cough, and pneumococcal disease
  • proactively treating COPD with medication, exercise, and any other strategies a doctor recommends
  • quitting smoking, if the person smokes

For more advice on COVID-19 prevention and treatment, visit our coronavirus hub.

COPD is a chronic, lifelong condition that a person can only manage, not cure. In contrast, pneumonia is an acute infection, which doctors can treat in many cases.

Both conditions can cause breathing difficulties and feelings of tightness in the chest.

Because COPD often flares up, improves, then flares up again, it may be difficult to tell the difference between a COPD flare-up and pneumonia. Sudden difficulty breathing always warrants medical treatment.

The medical term for these flare-ups is exacerbations.

Learn more about the early signs of COPD here.

Some distinct symptoms of pneumonia include:

Learn more about pneumonia symptoms here.

Different types of pneumonia have different treatments.

Antibiotics can treat bacterial pneumonia and any bacterial infections related to pneumonia. Depending on the severity of the infection, medical professionals may administer antibiotics through an IV. Antiviral or antifungal drugs may treat viral or fungal pneumonia.

Other treatments for pneumonia focus on addressing symptoms and preventing complications. Severe cases of pneumonia sometimes require hospitalization, particularly for people with COPD.

In the hospital, treatment may include:

  • administering fluids through an IV
  • monitoring heart and respiration rates
  • checking blood oxygen levels
  • oxygen therapy
  • breathing treatments and respiratory therapy

Improving respiratory health and treating COPD

Treatment cannot cure COPD. Instead, treatment aims to reduce symptoms, improve quality of life, and prolong life.

As the disease progresses, flare-ups may become more frequent.

A number of lifestyle changes can aid in COPD management. These include:

  • maintaining a mdoerate body weight and eating a well-balanced diet
  • quitting smoking, if the person smokes
  • avoiding allergens and toxic fumes
  • getting regular exercise

Physical therapy and activities such as walking, yoga, and tai chi can strengthen the heart and lungs. These activities improve the body’s ability to use oxygen and help with breathing techniques. This can improve the quality of life of people living with COPD.

Learn more about living with COPD here.

Medical treatments that can slow the progress of COPD or reduce symptoms include:

  • Oxygen therapy: People with COPD may need to wear an oxygen mask during COPD exacerbations or if the levels of oxygen in their body decreases.
  • Bronchodilators: These medications, which help the airways stay open, are available as both short-acting and long-acting treatments.
  • Corticosteroids: Steroid drugs can reduce symptoms during COPD flare-ups. These drugs come with a number of side effects, so doctors often recommend trying other treatments first.
  • Antibiotics: COPD can cause a number of respiratory infections. When mucus increases or changes color, antibiotics may be appropriate.

All of these treatments require a prescription from a healthcare professional.

Severe COPD symptoms may require hospitalization and may not improve with home medications.

COPD can significantly reduce a person’s life expectancy. However, the impact that COPD has on life expectancy will vary depending on several factors, including:

  • a person’s age
  • their COPD stage at diagnosis
  • history of smoking
  • medical history
  • overall physical health
  • adherence to treatment plans

Many doctors use the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) staging system to determine a person’s outlook. This system uses tests that measure a person’s lung output.

A 2020 study found that, on average, people with late stage COPD, or GOLD grade 3–4, saw a 9.3-year reduction in life expectancy, and those with moderate COPD, or GOLD grade 2, typically saw a reduction of 6.2 years. Researchers found that people with mild COPD, or GOLD grade 1, saw no reduction in life expectancy.

Learn more about COPD and life expectancy here.

Most people can recover from pneumonia within 1–3 weeks. However, young children and adults over the age of 65 are at higher risk of developing severe, occasionally life threatening complications. In the U.S., pneumonia causes around 50,000 deaths every year.

Limited research suggests that having COPD and pneumonia together may increase a person’s risk of dying from the conditions.

Learn more about pneumonia and life expectancy here.

Complications

COPD and pneumonia can both lead to complications that impact a person’s life expectancy.

A person with COPD may also experience:

Another possible complication of COPD may be lung cancer. People with COPD have a higher risk of developing lung cancer regardless of whether they smoke or not.

When COPD occurs alongside other respiratory conditions, such as asthma or allergies, the conditions can worsen one another. People who develop new or worsening COPD symptoms should contact their doctor to rule out other diagnoses.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lifelong condition that affects a person’s ability to breathe. In contrast, pneumonia is an often short-term inflammation of the lungs resulting from infection.

Having COPD can increase a person’s risk of developing pneumonia but is not a cause itself. Both conditions carry severe health risks, and having a combination of the two may increase a person’s risk of mortality, according to limited research.

People with COPD can find support and advice to help with managing COPD symptoms, avoiding flare-ups, and reducing the risk of infection.