Everything You Need to Know About COPD and Pneumonia

Kenneth Knowles, MD
Medically reviewed by Kenneth Knowles, MDSeptember 29th, 2020

50,000 Americans die each year from pneumonia. It may not seem like a huge number compared to our rapidly growing population, but consider this: if you have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), your risk of contracting pneumonia goes up. And since COPD is the third-leading cause of death in America, it’s a good idea to do everything you can to avoid making matters worse, like educating yourself on the link between COPD and pneumonia.

The Link between COPD and Pneumonia

COPD is a group of lung diseases, namely emphysema and bronchitis, that prevents normal breathing. Emphysema loosens and weakens the air sacs in your lungs, which need to stay tight to properly provide oxygen to the body. Bronchitis both inflames and creates excess mucus in the tubes that carry air to the lungs. Combined, they seriously undermine your respiratory system’s function.

Unlike COPD, pneumonia is a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection that you can catch, like the flu, only worse. Those air sacs that emphysema loosens?

Pneumonia inflames them and fills them with fluid, making breathing incredibly difficult and reducing oxygen levels in the blood.

The bottom line: COPD weakens patients’ respiratory systems, and not only does that make it easier for pneumonia to swoop in, but also worsens symptoms. This is why it’s essential for COPD patients to keep a careful watch for pneumonia symptoms—the earlier you catch it, the more you can do about it.

How to Tell If It’s Pneumonia or a COPD Flare-Up

Here’s the problem with COPD and pneumonia: COPD flare-ups, or exacerbations, look a whole lot like pneumonia symptoms. These include things like shortness of breath, a tightening of the chest, and a difficulty with speech due to a lack of oxygen.

Pneumonia has a few telltale symptoms that COPD patients should look out for, though. These symptoms aren’t typically associated with COPD, so if you experience them along with the symptoms noted above, it might be time to seek medical care:


Risks of Pneumonia and COPD

Here’s why preventing pneumonia matters so much for people with COPD: there are a number of serious risks involved in the combination of these two illnesses. Extremely limited airflow can lead to respiratory failure, which can be fatal. It can also lead to oxygen deprivation, also known as hypoxia, which can result in long-term complications such as:

  • Irreversible lung damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Cardiovascular issues, including increased risk of heart attack and stroke
  • Permanent brain damage

Pneumonia is among the top ten leading causes of death in the U.S., so don’t gamble if you suspect symptoms.

Pneumonia Treatment for COPD Patients

Luckily, the medical world knows a lot about pneumonia today. That means it’s very treatable, especially when it’s caught early and hasn’t had a ton of time to progress to a severe state. For COPD patients, this is good news; it means that a watchful eye can make a huge difference when it comes to your health. The key is maintaining that watchful eye; remember that COPD patients are at a higher risk of developing pneumonia.

For diagnosis, your medical professional will often order a CT scan, blood work, or an x-ray. They might also test a bit of your sputum, the thick substance produced in your lungs which can make it difficult to breathe.

Pneumonia treatment for COPD patients is similar to treatment for non-COPD patients, but it does depend on the type of pneumonia that’s been contracted. For bacterial pneumonia, antibiotics are often prescribed. Very severe bacterial pneumonia might require antibiotics administered via an IV. For viral or fungal pneumonia, antiviral and antifungal drugs are prescribed. Treatment might also include:

  • Respiratory therapy and other breathing treatments
  • Heart and respiration rate monitoring
  • Frequent checks of blood oxygen levels
  • Oxygen therapy, often including ventilators
  • Steroid prescriptions to reduce inflammation in the lungs

Have COPD? Here’s How to Prevent Pneumonia

As you’ve already learned by now, COPD patients are at high risk for developing pneumonia. An already-weakened respiratory system will have a hard time standing up to an infectious disease that’s placed a big, red target on it, which is why you need to do everything you can to help your body out. You can prevent pneumonia by keeping good daily habits, such as:

  • Washing your hands frequently
  • Quitting smoking
  • Eating healthy and exercising to strengthen your immune system

Besides these tips, the CDC highly recommends vaccinating yourself against pneumonia. Pneumonia is often a result of a flu complication, so it’s a good idea to get your flu shot every year as well.

Pneumonia vaccines can’t prevent every form of the illness, but it can help lessen the duration and severity if you do catch the infection. And for patients with COPD, that difference could mean a lot.

Think You Have Pneumonia? Consider At-Home Treatment

If you suspect you’re experiencing pneumonia symptoms, you need to focus on rest and recovery. Unfortunately, traveling to a local urgent care facility or emergency room is not the way to do that. Driving across town can be a real hassle, and once you arrive, it may take hours to receive help.

DispatchHealth will travel directly to you in order to provide comprehensive pneumonia care for non-life-threatening cases. DispatchHealth offers on-demand healthcare for people of all ages in the comfort of their home. With each call, a qualified medical team delivers roughly 70 percent of the tools and technologies found in an emergency room, allowing the providers to perform a variety of advanced tests and treatments. For medically homebound patients, DispatchHealth coordinates with third party imaging services to come to a patient’s home to provide x-ray services. Plus, our skilled medical professionals have extensive experience with COPD patients in emergency care situations .

The best part? DispatchHealth partners with most health insurance companies, including Medicare and Medicaid, to make it affordable.

Get in touch with us today, and we’ll come to you to diagnose and treat your pneumonia. DispatchHealth’s house call services can conveniently be requested via phone, mobile app, or through our website and a physician assistant or nurse practitioner, along with a DispatchHealth medical technician (DHMT) will typically arrive at your home within a few hours.

If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department.


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/pneumonia/prevention.html
  2. https://erj.ersjournals.com/content/28/2/346\
  3. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/282929.php
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/pneumococcal/about/prevention.html
  5. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/pneumonia/symptoms-and-diagnosis
  6. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pneumonia/symptoms-causes/syc-20354204
  7. https://medlineplus.gov/respiratoryfailure.html
  8. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/deaths.htm
  9. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/pneumonia
  10. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/pneumonia/preventing-pneumonia
The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.

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