Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the term for a group of lung conditions that are progressive, meaning that they get worse over time. COPD prevents the lungs from working efficiently, which can lead to a range of complications.

In people with COPD, the air sacs in the lungs become damaged. This damage affects the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body and causes a variety of symptoms, including wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing.

In this article, we look at five possible complications of COPD. We also cover the outlook for this disease and provide some tips for preventing complications.

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COPD often progresses slowly over several years, but complications may develop at any time. These complications can be severe and even life-threatening.

The five most common types of COPD complication include:

1. Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an infection that causes inflammation of the lungs. It can result from a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection. People with lung diseases, such as COPD, are more likely to develop pneumonia and other lung infections.

According to a study of 179,759 adults who were in the hospital with COPD exacerbations, pneumonia developed in about 36 percent of those who were experiencing their first flare-up.

Another study found that older adults with COPD developed pneumonia six times more often than people without this condition.

People with COPD are also at risk of pneumonia becoming severe and leading to life-threatening problems, such as sepsis and respiratory failure.

The symptoms of pneumonia include:

2. Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)

ARDS is a life-threatening condition in which severe inflammation of the lungs causes fluid to leak into the blood vessels in the airways. The small air sacs, or alveoli, collapse as a result. ARDS usually develops in response to a severe chest injury or an infection, such as pneumonia.

According to the American Thoracic Society, the death rate from ARDS is higher in people with COPD than in the general population. Symptoms of ARDS include:

  • severe shortness of breath
  • rapid breathing
  • confusion and extreme tiredness
  • fever

3. Depression

Having COPD can also lead to mental health issues, such as depression. In a study of 76,020 people, half of whom had a diagnosis of COPD, the rate of depression was almost two times higher in the people with COPD.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • loss of interest in activities
  • feelings of sadness
  • fatigue
  • trouble sleeping
  • changes in appetite

4. Heart failure

Heart failure is when the heart muscle cannot pump blood efficiently through the body. It is a progressive condition that can occur on the right or left side of the heart or on both sides. Heart failure that occurs in people with COPD is commonly right-sided.

When the lungs are not working as they should, this can place additional stress on other organs, including the heart.

For example, COPD can cause low oxygen levels in the body. The pressure in the pulmonary arteries will increase as the body tries to counter this, which puts a strain on the heart. The heart can become weak and less able to pump efficiently.

Heart failure is very common in people with COPD. Research suggests that 20–70 percent of people with COPD also develop heart failure.

The symptoms of heart failure include:

  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • swelling in the legs and feet
  • a cough

5. Frailty

Frailty is a term that refers to physical weakness and fragile health.

People with COPD can become frail for several reasons. Shortness of breath may make eating difficult, which can result in weight loss. Meanwhile, fatigue may result in decreased physical activity levels, which can lead to muscle wasting.

A study that used data from the National Health and Nutrition Evaluation Survey found that almost 58 percent of people with COPD had frailty. The participants who also had diabetes and reported shortness of breath had the highest risk of being frail.

Symptoms of frailty in people with COPD may include:

  • weight loss
  • a decrease in muscle mass
  • fatigue
  • low physical activity, decreased mobility, and a slow walking speed

COPD is a chronic condition that tends to worsen over time and can cause death. According to the American Lung Association, COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States.

COPD-related deaths occur most often due to:

  • infections, such as pneumonia
  • respiratory failure
  • heart-related complications

The severity of COPD varies greatly, which can make it difficult for doctors to provide a life expectancy for people with this condition.

Several factors play a role in life expectancy, including the person’s age at the time of diagnosis and whether or not they have any additional health problems.

Some people with COPD live for many years after their diagnosis.

People with COPD should see their doctor routinely to monitor their condition.

However, it is particularly important that they seek medical advice if the condition worsens or new symptoms develop. A change in symptoms can indicate an infection or another complication.

The early detection and prompt treatment of complications can improve a person’s outlook. Individuals with COPD should see their doctor as soon as possible if they start having any of the following symptoms:

  • increased shortness of breath
  • change in the amount, color, or consistency of mucus
  • fever
  • increased coughing
  • increased fatigue
  • new or worsening swelling in the feet, legs, or ankles

It is vital to seek emergency care if any of the following signs and symptoms develop:

  • chest pain
  • bluish nails or lips
  • severe shortness of breath
  • coughing up pink, frothy mucus
  • confusion, speech difficulties, or extreme fatigue

It is not possible to prevent all of the complications associated with COPD, but people can implement some lifestyle changes to reduce the risk. These include:

  • avoiding anything that can irritate the lungs, such as dust, fumes, cigarette smoke, and other chemicals
  • quitting smoking and other tobacco products
  • getting vaccinated for flu annually
  • getting vaccinated for pneumonia
  • washing hands frequently to prevent infection
  • taking all prescribed medications
  • maintaining healthy habits, such as getting enough sleep, eating a healthful diet, and exercising regularly

The outlook for people with COPD can vary considerably. COPD is a progressive condition with no cure, but medications, oxygen therapy, and pulmonary rehabilitation classes can help manage symptoms and improve a person’s quality of life.

Seeing a doctor regularly and making lifestyle changes, such as exercising, taking steps to prevent infection, and not smoking, may slow the progression of the disease and reduce the likelihood of complications.