Health Conditions Associated With COPD

Chest x-ray image on light table showing of a patient’s lungs and respiratory tract
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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is associated with a number of health problems, including lung infections, heart disease, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). But the links between COPD and other illnesses are complex. Smoking, the main cause of COPD, independently causes a variety of other health conditions, such as congestive heart failure and lung cancer.

COPD also exacerbates several health conditions, which increases the overall impact of the disease on your health and quality of life.

Among the reasons to communicate your symptoms to your doctor and follow-up on regular medical evaluations when you have COPD is the increased likelihood of these comorbid conditions.

Lung Infections and Bacterial Pneumonia

COPD is associated with a weakened immune system, which increases the risk of developing recurrent lung infections. With COPD, you may also be unable to cough up mucus from your lungs, which leads to the growth of microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi.

As a result, you can develop frequent bouts of acute bronchitis and pneumonia. Pneumonia in COPD is usually caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae, a specific strain of bacteria. Bacterial or fungal infections generally require treatment with oral (by mouth) or intravenous (IV, injected through a vein) antimicrobial treatment.

Collapsed Lung

Pneumothorax, also known as a collapsed lung, is a complication of COPD. This condition occurs when a hole develops in the lung, allowing air to escape into the space around it. The air pressure causes the lung to partially or completely collapse.

COPD increases the risk of pneumothorax because it weakens the structure of the lungs, making spontaneous tears more likely to occur.

Atelectasis, which is similar to pneumothorax, is caused by a blockage of the airways or by pressure from outside of the lung. It, too, can result in partial or total collapse of a lung.

This complication typically occurs after surgery or during prolonged bedrest, but COPD can predispose you to atelectasis as well.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is a life-threatening disease that often occurs as a result of chronic lung damage. Because both lung cancer and COPD are primarily caused by smoking, the two diseases often co-exist.

Cancer cells can spread within the lungs, interfering with a person's ability to breathe. If untreated, lung cancer can metastasize (spread) throughout the whole body.

If you have COPD and lung cancer, the additive effects of both diseases on your pulmonary function can make you very short of breath and may interfere with your ability to manage even moderate physical activity, such as climbing stairs inside your home.

Pulmonary Hypertension

Pulmonary hypertension is high blood pressure within the arteries that run through the lungs. It is one of the complications of COPD. This condition eventually leads to diminished oxygen concentration throughout the entire body. You may experience shortness of breath, fatigue, and swelling of your legs.

Over time, pulmonary hypertension can also affect your heart function, causing right-sided heart failure.

Congestive Heart Failure

Congestive heart failure (CHF) is characterized by the diminished pumping ability of the heart muscle. CHF, like COPD, is a slowly progressive condition that causes shortness of breath, low energy, and exercise intolerance. If you have both illnesses, these symptoms can be very severe and will impact your quality of life.

Smoking commonly causes both of these conditions, so they often occur together. And if you already have COPD and/or CHF, smoking will exacerbate the situation.

Cor Pulmonale

Cor pulmonale is a type of heart failure that causes trouble breathing and low energy. It is one of the complications of emphysema, a type of COPD characterized by damage to the alveoli (air sacs in the lungs).

Emphysema leads to an increase in the blood pressure of the pulmonary artery, the blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the lungs. This results in cor pulmonale, which is characterized by enlargement and failure of the right side of the heart.

Other Types of Heart Disease

While right-side heart failure and congestive heart failure can occur as a consequence of COPD, other types of heart disease can involve the heart muscle, the heart valves, the coronary arteries, and/or the heart's electrical system.

Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease, so it is not unusual to have COPD and heart disease. These conditions can develop independently, and some of the symptoms of heart disease are similar to symptoms of COPD—such as shortness of breath, exercise intolerance, fatigue, and low energy.

Anxiety and Depression

There is an association between COPD exacerbations and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. It is believed that some of the effects of COPD—such as shortness of breath and diminished energy—may worsen symptoms of these psychological issues.

Experts also suggest that having anxiety and/or depression may lead to an increase in the number of COPD exacerbations that you experience.

Hyperlipidemia

If you have COPD, you have a high chance of also being diagnosed with hyperlipidemia (high triglyceride and/or cholesterol levels in your blood). Experts do not have an explanation for the strong link between COPD and hyperlipidemia, however.

In general, hyperlipidemia is a very common medical condition, and this could be the reason for the frequent association between COPD and elevated lipid levels. There is a genetic tendency to developing hyperlipidemia, but smoking changes metabolism in a way that raises your triglyceride and cholesterol levels too.

GERD

Gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD) occurs when the sphincter muscle in your lower esophagus doesn't close as tightly as it should. As a consequence, your stomach fluid can leak back up into your esophagus, causing heartburn, indigestion, and abdominal discomfort.

While the reason for the link between COPD and GERD is not clear, smoking increases the risk of GERD, and GERD increases the risk of having a COPD exacerbation.

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