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.
Complications of COPD
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:
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:
- shortness of breath
- a cough
- chest pain
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
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
- 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
- swelling in the legs and feet
- a cough
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
- low physical activity, decreased mobility, and a slow walking speed