COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstruction in the airflow from the lungs, making it difficult for patients to breathe. An umbrella term used for various progressive lung diseases, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, COPD affects more than 16 million Americans (or about 6% of the U.S. population) and can lead to numerous severe health consequences, including death.
COPD is caused due to excessive and long-term exposure to irritating gases and particulate matter from cigarette smoke. Though COPD is a disease that progresses gradually, it causes serious lung damage. It also puts patients at an increased risk of developing heart diseases, lung cancer, and frequent, recurring infections.
How COPD Increases Your Risk of Infections
The lungs of healthy individuals have several defense mechanisms to deal with the germs that enter your body with the air you breathe. But in people with COPD, this innate lung defense mechanism gets compromised due to continuous exposure to smoke and other environmental irritants.
This impaired lung defense makes it difficult for people with COPD to clear off bacteria, dusts and other pollutants from their lungs. This makes them highly susceptible to repeated cycles of acute airway mucosal infections with viruses and bacteria, chronic inflammations, and acute lung infections and damage.
Respiratory Infections Caused by COPD
COPD makes you increasingly susceptible to various respiratory infections like:
The chronic inflammation caused by COPD severely decreases the mucociliary clearance of lungs. The disrupted ciliary activity and COPD flare ups lead to an increase in the microbial colonization in the lower respiratory tract and your susceptibility to common colds during winters and spring, causing weeks of sniffles and discomfort.
Not just that, viruses that cause cold can also lead to COPD exacerbations and make your COPD symptoms – wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath – worse. In fact, the risk of COPD symptom exacerbation is 30 times greater in people who catch a cold.
People with COPD have a suppressed lung immune system. Their decreased ability to tolerate and fight influenza virus (the flu virus) puts them at a greater risk of developing serious and life-threatening complications of the flu – pneumonia, which, in case of COPD patients, often requires hospitalization.
That’s why, it is important for COPD patients to stay extra careful during the flu season, to not only prevent influenza infection and flu complications but also COPD exacerbation. Flu in COPD patients can lead to increased congestion, shortness of breath, wheezing and cough, to a point where patients don’t have enough capacity to breathe.
COPD inflammations make you increasingly susceptible to bacterial and viral pneumonia – a potentially life-threatening lung infection that’s characterized by cough, fever, shortness of breath, episodes of rapid and shallow breathing, nausea and vomiting.
If left untreated or undiagnosed, pneumonia in COPD patients can become severe and may lead to difficult breathing, rapid heart rate, severe lung complications and even death.
COPD patients who are over 65 and above are almost eight times more likely to get pneumonia than their healthier counterparts. That’s why, it is imperative for people with COPD (especially those over 65 years) to get their pneumococcal vaccine shot on time.
Frequent or long lasting episodes of cold or flu can lead to chronic bronchitis in COPD patients. Its symptoms include sore throat, runny nose, fatigue, headache, body ache and persistent cough that lasts on most days for at least 3 months a year or for 2 years in a row.
Ways to Prevent Infection
Due to the severity of the infection and its effect on your disease, people with COPD need to be on guard against all types of respiratory infections, especially cold and flu. Here are some potential tips that can help you stay protected:
Wash Your Hands Frequently
Our hands are the most imminent carries of viruses and bacteria. To reduce your risk of infections, it is important to practice regular hand-washing. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water, especially when you are in a public setting or around a lot of people. Alternatively, you can also consider sanitizing your hands with an alcohol based sanitizer.
Eat a Healthy, Balanced Diet
Good nutrition is the key to disease-free living. So, make sure to include a healthy, well-balanced diet in your routine – one that’s packed with all the essential nutrients and immunity-boosting foods. Always make sure to choose green veggies, fruits, low-fat dairy, nuts and grains over processed, high carb junk.
Water helps to clear your bronchioles and airways of any upcoming bacteria or virus colonization and is the easiest way to protect your body from the risk of infection. So, if you are suffering from COPD, you must try to stay as hydrated as possible. Make sure to drink at least 6 to 8 eight-ounce glasses per day.
Keep Your Surroundings Clean
To avoid infections, it is important for people with COPD (and all others) to keep their houses and surroundings clean and free from dust, molds and mildews. You must also consider wearing a mask when visiting a construction site or places that have high levels of environmental pollutants, dust, smoke and fumes.
Avoid Meeting People Suffering from Cold and Flu
Even a small encounter with cold and flu virus can make you contract the disease. The virus spread fast, very fast. To stay protected, steer clear from people who are ill. Also avoid visiting crowded places that can increase your odds of getting exposed to the virus. Even if you have to, make sure to cover your face and nose with a mask.
Avoid Touching Your Face and Eyes with Dirty Hands
Do not rub your eyes or touch your face with dirty hands. It’s the easiest way to transmit germs to your nasal passage and make way for infections.
Protect Your Lungs from Cigarette Smoke
Smoking, even second hand smoking, only makes your COPD worse and increases your likelihood of catching other respiratory illnesses. To keep your lungs healthy, it is important for you to quit smoking. You must also avoid places and friends that increase your exposure to cigarette or cigar smoke.
Do Not Skip Your COPD Medication
Never miss out on your COPD medicines, whether you are at home, in office or on the go. Always follow your doctor’s medication guidelines and consult him before making any changes.
Make Sure to Get Your Annual Flu Shot
For people with COPD, flu shot is the best protection. All COPD patients, and others in the family, must get their annual flu shot to stay protected from the influenza virus. Remember, flu strains keep evolving year on year, that’s why it’s important to get your flu shot every year.
Get the Pneumonia Vaccine as Well
If you haven’t already gotten it, make sure to get the pneumonia shot as soon as possible. It can help you to avoid potentially dangerous and life-threatening complications of pneumonia.
Treat Infections as Early as Possible
Thanks to the overly compromised immune system, in people with COPD, even a small infection can take the most dangerous form. That’s why, it’s important for people with COPD to get themselves treated at the first sign of infection, so that the disease can be treated before it turns into a serious lung infection.
While, to stay healthy, it is important for COPD patients to avoid all instances of infection, it doesn’t mean you have to live in a bubble. All you need is a personalized COPD action plan that helps you prevent infection and allows you to stay healthy.
At EPIC Health, we can help you do just that. Through comprehensive screening and personalized diet, medication and lifestyle practices, we can not only help you build a strong immune system that wards off all infections and disease-causing germs, but also treat all potential infections in a timely manner to prevent COPD exacerbations and complications.
So come, schedule appointment with our healthcare experts today! We can help you live happy, healthy and better!