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COPD, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and colds

Getting a cold can worsen symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases COPD ( emphysema, chronic bronchitis), and increases the risk of developing a more serious respiratory tract infection.

What happens with COPD and colds?

A cold is a viral respiratory illness that mainly affects your nose and throat, but in some instances can affect your airways. When you have COPD, you already have some difficulty breathing because of the damaged airways and lungs. Contracting a respiratory virus along with COPD can hinder breathing even more and can cause the following changes in your symptoms:

  • An increase in phlegm or sputum
  • An increase in the thickness or stickiness of the phlegm
  • A change in phlegm colour to yellow or green
  • The presence of blood in the phlegm
  • An increase in the severity of shortness of breath, cough, or wheezing
  • A general feeling of ill health
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased fatigue

Why should I take colds seriously with emphysema or chronic bronchitis?

Catching a cold with COPD may also lead to other infections such as bacterial pneumonia. This occurs because of the airway obstruction and the inability to cough out infected secretions of mucus.

Sometimes, patients with COPD are hospitalised because of a respiratory infection and the worsening of their symptoms. Treatment may include inhaled medications, oxygen, and antibiotics to treat any bacterial infection. Antibiotics do not treat a cold since this is caused by a virus.

To avoid more severe problems with COPD and colds, it's important to always seek medical advice if your cold symptoms get worse. Don't wait until you have more severe breathing problems before seeking medical advice.

Which cold treatment should I use with COPD?

First, it is important to stay on your prescribed medications for COPD. Then, to decide how to treat cold symptoms, it's best to talk to your doctor, practice nurse, or pharmacist. You might treat the body aches and raised temperature associated with a cold with paracetamol or ibuprofen.

Most over-the-counter cold remedies are generally safe for people with COPD. Seek medical advice before taking antihistamines or decongestants as these may thicken mucus and make it even more difficult to cough up.

Can I prevent colds if I have emphysema or chronic bronchitis?

The following guidelines can help:

  • Good hygiene can decrease respiratory infections such as colds. Prevent the spread of a cold virus by covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze, and making sure you and your family members wash your hands regularly.
  • If you have COPD you are recommended to have a free annual influenza vaccination from your GP. You should also be given a pneumococcal vaccination to protect you against a specific type of bacterial pneumonia. In most cases, pneumococcal vaccine only needs to be given once.
  • Avoid crowds during the cold and flu season if possible, since colds and flu can cause serious problems for people with COPD.
  • Pay attention to healthy lifestyle habits by not smoking, avoiding cigarette smoke and air pollutants; eating a balanced, healthy diet; and exercising to stay strong.
  • Sinus infections can trigger breathing problems for those with COPD. Be aware of your sinus symptoms and report them immediately to your doctor or practice nurse to prevent worsening of breathing difficulties.
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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on January 22, 2018

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