COPD and other health problems
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - comorbidities; COPD - comorbidities
If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you are more likely to have other health problems, too. These are called comorbidities. People with COPD tend to have more health problems than people who do not have COPD.
Having other health problems can affect your symptoms and treatments. You may need to visit your doctor more often. You also may need to have more tests or treatments.
Having COPD is a lot to manage. But try to stay positive. You can protect your health by understanding why you are at risk for certain conditions and learning how to prevent them.
For years, you've enjoyed relaxing with a cigarette in your hand, and looked forward to your cigarette breaks at work, but now, all of that smoking has caught up with you. You're coughing, wheezing, often out of breath. Could you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease? Let's talk about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, for short. COPD is a lung disease that's usually caused by smoking, although some people who smoke for years never get the condition, while a few get COPD even if they've never lit up. Most people with COPD have a combination of a cough that just won't go away, called chronic bronchitis, and lung damage, called emphysema. The symptoms of COPD can sneak up on you slowly. Over time, you'll develop a cough that lingers, day after day. You'll feel tired, and have trouble catching your breath. Only your doctor can tell for sure whether this is COPD. To test for it, you'll need to breathe or blow into a machine as hard as you can, and hold that breath, as long as you can, in a test called spirometry. You may also need to have a blood test to determine how much oxygen and carbon dioxide is in your blood. If you have COPD, the ways things stand now, you'll have it for life, as there is no cure for this disease. However, there are ways to control the condition and help you breathe more easily. The first thing you do, absolutely need to do, is stop smoking, which will help slow down the damage to your lungs. A few medicines can help relieve COPD symptoms. You may breathe in a bronchodilator medicine through an inhaler to open up your airways, or take steroids to bring down the swelling in your lungs. If you're having real trouble breathing though, call your local emergency services number. You may need to visit the hospital for oxygen or breathing assistance. You may also need to take antibiotics during flare-ups, because getting an infection can make your COPD worse. Though it may be hard to exercise when you're feeling out of breath, staying active will help keep your muscles strong. Your doctor can teach you how to breathe in a different way so that you can exercise with COPD. You can help avoid the shortness of breath, the coughing, and the wheezing of COPD by butting out, kicking your cigarette habit as soon as possible. Not smoking is the absolute best way to prevent COPD. Ask your doctor about programs and medicines that may make it easier for you to quit.
Other Health Problems you may Have
If you have COPD, you are more likely to have:
- Repeat infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia. COPD increases your risk for complications from colds and the flu. It increases your risk of needing to be hospitalized due to a lung infection.
- High blood pressure in the lungs. COPD may cause high blood pressure in the arteries that bring blood to your lungs. This is called pulmonary hypertension.
- Heart disease. COPD increases your risk for heart attack, heart failure, chest pain, irregular heartbeat, and blood clots.
- Diabetes. Having COPD increases your risk of developing diabetes. Also, some COPD medicines can cause high blood sugar.
- Osteoporosis (weak bones). People with COPD often have low levels of vitamin D, are inactive, and smoke. These factors increase your risk for bone loss and weak bones. Certain COPD medicines also may cause bone loss if taken often or for a long time.
- Depression and anxiety. It is common for people with COPD to feel depressed or anxious. Being breathless can cause anxiety. Plus, having symptoms slows you down so you can't do as much as you used to.
- Heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD and heartburn can lead to more COPD symptoms and flare-ups.
- Lung cancer. Continuing to smoke increases this risk. COPD can make it harder to treat lung cancer.
Many factors play a role in why people with COPD often have other health problems. Smoking is one of the biggest culprits. Smoking is a risk factor for most of the problems above.
- COPD usually develops in middle age. And people tend to have more health problems as they age.
- COPD makes it hard to breathe, which can make it hard to get enough exercise. Being inactive can lead to bone and muscle loss and increase your risk for other health problems.
- Certain COPD medicines can increase your risk for other conditions such as bone loss, heart conditions, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Staying Healthy With COPD
Work closely with your doctor to keep COPD and other medical problems under control. Taking the following steps can also help protect your health:
- Take medicines and treatments as directed.
- If you smoke, quit. Also avoid secondhand smoke. Avoiding smoke is the best way to slow down damage to your lungs. Ask your doctor about stop-smoking programs and other options, such as nicotine replacement therapy and tobacco cessation medicines.
- Discuss the risks and side effects of your medicines with your doctor. There may be better options available or things you can do to reduce or offset the potential harms. Tell your doctor if you notice any side effects.
- Have the COVID-19 vaccines, yearly flu vaccine, and the pneumococcal vaccines (also called "pneumonia vaccines") to help guard against infections. Wash your hands often. Stay away from people with colds or other infections.
- Stay as active as possible. Try short walks and light weight training. Talk with your doctor about ways to get exercise.
- Eat a healthy diet rich in lean proteins, fish, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Eating several small healthy meals a day can give you the nutrients you need without feeling bloated. An overfull belly can make it hard to breathe.
- Check with your doctor if you feel sad, helpless, or worried. There are programs, treatments, and medicines that can help you feel more positive and hopeful and reduce your symptoms of anxiety or depression.
Remember that you are not alone. Your doctor will work with you to help you stay as healthy and active as possible.
When to Call the Doctor
You should contact your doctor when:
- You have new signs or symptoms that concern you.
- You are having trouble managing one or more of your health conditions.
- You have concerns about your health problems and treatments.
- You feel hopeless, sad, or anxious.
- You notice medicine side effects that bother you.
Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) website. Global strategy for the diagnosis, management, and prevention of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: 2023 report.
Han MK, Lazarus SC. COPD: clinical diagnosis and management. In: Broaddus VC, Ernst JD, King TE, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 64.
Rochester CL, Nici L. Pulmonary rehabilitation. In: Broaddus VC, Ernst JD, King TE, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 139.
Last reviewed on: 10/13/2023
Reviewed by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.