COPD & Upper Respiratory Infections

woman with COPD

In the United States, an upper respiratory infection is the most frequently given reason for missed work, missed school, and doctor visits. This very common and highly contagious illness, which affects the nose, nasal passages, and throat, occurs when a virus or bacterium enters the body through the nose or mouth. The infection is easily spread from person to person through the inhalation of respiratory droplets, which are introduced into the air every time an infected person coughs or sneezes.

The most well-known example of an upper respiratory infection is the common cold, which is usually harmless—even though it might not seem that way during the seven to 10 days its symptoms may take to resolve. In addition to coughing and sneezing, an upper respiratory infection can cause general misery in the form of nasal congestion, sore throat, a low-grade fever, mild body aches, and fatigue. However, potentially serious complications can sometimes develop as well, especially in an individual who has an underlying health condition such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Why are Upper Respiratory Infections More Serious in Individuals with COPD?

COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that obstructs airflow from the lungs. In addition to causing difficulty breathing, coughing, wheezing, and excess mucus production, COPD can lead to lung and heart damage over time. Because upper respiratory infections affect the nose, nasal passages, and throat, these illnesses often worsen COPD symptoms and increase the risk of developing a more serious respiratory tract infection.

Additionally, many people with COPD experience periodic flare-ups, also called exacerbations, during which their symptoms become worse and last longer than usual. Because most COPD exacerbations are triggered by upper respiratory infections, it is especially important for those living with COPD to know the early signs of these illnesses and take appropriate steps to protect themselves.

Warning Signs of a COPD Flare-Up

The best way to prevent or minimize a COPD exacerbation is to pay close attention to any symptom changes, even if they are very slight, and seek professional medical attention right away. The earlier an issue is identified, the more likely it can be addressed before it causes any serious problems.

Of course, when it comes to COPD symptoms, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between a “bad day” and an oncoming exacerbation. In affected individuals, breathing difficulties can intensify for a variety of reasons, some of which are not necessarily a cause for concern. These include weather, altitude, and barometric changes, as well as allergies and emotions, and even using an empty inhaler. In general, a true exacerbation is much worse than a bad day. For instance, the warning signs of an impending COPD flare-up, which can vary among individuals, may include:

  • More frequent coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing or heart rate
  • A persistent low-grade fever
  • Morning headaches, dizziness, or general restlessness
  • Overwhelming fatigue that lasts for more than one day
  • A change in the color, consistency, odor, or amount of mucus
  • New or increased ankle swelling
  • An increased need for rescue medications or oxygen

Most upper respiratory infections can be successfully treated, but it is essential for an individual with COPD to see a physician right away if any of these symptoms occur. 

Tips for Preventing COPD Flare-Ups

While COPD exacerbations cannot be completely avoided, it may be possible to reduce their frequency and severity. In general, this involves taking steps to stay as healthy as possible by:

  • Washing hands—thoroughly and often—with warm water and mild soap
  • Exercising regularly
  • Staying well hydrated by drinking plenty of water, which can thin mucus
  • Getting sufficient rest
  • Avoiding contact with individuals who are sick
  • Getting a flu shot, pneumonia shot, and/or pertussis shot as recommended by a physician
  • Taking COPD control and maintenance medications as prescribed
  • Taking antibiotics as prescribed (if applicable)

In addition to intensifying symptoms, exacerbations can also hasten the progression of COPD, so it is doubly important to prevent them as much as possible.

Managing COPD Exacerbations

Individuals with COPD are encouraged to work with a healthcare provider to develop a personalized COPD action plan that includes specific instructions on what to do in the initial stages of a flare-up. For instance, some people are advised to keep a supply of prescribed antibiotics, corticosteroids, and/or rescue inhalers on hand so they can start taking the medications at the first sign of an exacerbation. It is also vital to remain as calm as possible, since stress can intensify breathing difficulties.

If you notice a change in your COPD symptoms or sense an exacerbation coming on, you’ll want to see a healthcare provider right away. But, you probably won’t want to deal with the hassles of getting to a doctor’s office, and that’s perfectly understandable. To minimize your discomfort, it would be best for you to stay put and relax in your own home. And, with DispatchHealth on your side, you can do just that.

Simply request a home visit from an experienced DispatchHealth medical team via phone, our mobile app, or our website. Within a few hours, we’ll be at your doorstep, ready to provide the on-demand healthcare you need to breathe easier and feel better.

Surprised? Like many people, you might think doctor house calls are a thing of the past. Not so with DispatchHealth. Our mobile medical team has the necessary skills, experience, and tools to treat illnesses ranging from common to complex, including COPD, and we’ll come to you. We’ll also bring much more than that little black doctor bag you might be envisioning. Our state-of-the-art medical kit includes approximately 70 percent of the tools and technologies found in most emergency rooms, allowing us to administer a wide variety of advanced tests and treatments on site—and at a fraction of the cost of a typical ER visit.

DispatchHealth accepts most major insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid, and we’re available 365 days per year, including holidays. Contact us today.

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About the Author
DispatchHealth Staff The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.