A Comprehensive Guide to COPD Complications

When you have ​a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), complications of your condition can be serious and even life-threatening.

To safeguard your own health, you need to learn the signs and symptoms of these possible complications. You also need to stick with your doctor's plan of care in order to lessen your chances of developing these complications.

Here's a detailed list of the possible complications you might experience from your COPD.

Cor Pulmonale

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Cor pulmonale is heart failure on the right side of your heart — the side that pumps blood from your heart to your lungs. It's caused by an increase in blood pressure in your pulmonary artery, which is the artery that carries blood from the right side of your heart to your lungs.

High blood pressure in this artery can strain your heart muscle on the right side. This then causes the right side of your heart to become enlarged and to develop heart failure, which means it can't pump blood properly.

Symptoms of cor pulmonale are similar to those of COPD and include trouble breathing, inability to exercise, and swelling of the feet and ankles. Treatment involves medications and oxygen therapy, and in very advanced cases, heart or lung transplant.

Acute Exacerbation of COPD

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In its simplest terms, an exacerbation means your COPD symptoms get worse. You might have more trouble breathing than you normally do, your cough might worsen, or you might have more mucus. Some people also have a fever with an exacerbation.

Many people with COPD suffer several episodes of acute exacerbation a year, often leading to increased hospitalizations, respiratory failure, and even death.

When you're having a COPD exacerbation, you may need to be admitted to the hospital, or alternatively, you might be able to manage at home with the help of a home care nurse. Treatment may include additional medications and oxygen therapy.

Pulmonary Hypertension

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Pulmonary hypertension occurs when there is abnormally high pressure within the blood vessels of the lungs.

Normally, the blood flows from your heart to pass through your lungs, where blood cells pick up oxygen and deliver it to the body.

In pulmonary hypertension, the blood vessels in the lungs become thicker and narrow. This means less blood is able to flow through them. Pressure rises, and your heart muscle has to work harder to get the blood through the lung's blood vessels. Ultimately, less oxygen reaches your body due to pulmonary hypertension.

Symptoms of pulmonary hypertension include chest pain and shortness of breath. To treat pulmonary hypertension, you need to get your COPD under control.


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Pneumothorax is defined as the accumulation of air or gas in the space between the lung and the chest wall. Pneumothorax occurs because of a hole that develops in the lung, which allows air to escape in the space around the lung. This then causes the lung to partially or completely collapse.

People who have COPD are at greater risk for pneumothorax because the structure of their lungs is weak and vulnerable to the spontaneous development of these types of holes.

Symptoms of pneumothorax include sudden, sharp chest pain, chest tightness, and rapid heart rate. Sometimes a small pneumothorax will go away on its own, but if your pneumothorax is large, you may need to be admitted to the hospital for a procedure to drain the air from your chest and re-inflate your lung.

Secondary Polycythemia

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Secondary polycythemia is a rare disorder where there are too many red blood cells in your blood. When too many red blood cells are produced, your blood becomes thick, which makes it difficult for the blood to flow through your smaller blood vessels.

In people with COPD, secondary polycythemia can occur as the body tries to compensate for decreased amounts of oxygen in the blood.

Symptoms of secondary polycythemia include weakness, headache, and fatigue. Getting your COPD under control should bring your secondary polycythemia under control, as well. In the interim, your doctor may recommend some measures to relieve your symptoms.

Respiratory Failure

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Respiratory failure occurs when your lungs aren't doing a proper job of transferring oxygen to your blood and removing waste carbon dioxide from your blood. There are numerous possible causes of respiratory failure, including COPD and pneumonia.

Symptoms of respiratory failure include shortness of breath, extreme tiredness and fatigue, confusion and rapid breathing. When these symptoms develop suddenly, they're a medical emergency.

Treatment of respiratory failure usually involves medication and oxygen therapy.

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