5 Signs and Symptoms of Lung Infection in COPD

Infection can be tricky to distinguish from a COPD flare

People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have inflamed and narrowed airways and damaged air sacs, which makes them more prone to developing lung infections, particularly pneumonia.

How Lung Infection Occurs

Pneumonia happens when bacteria, viruses, and less commonly fungi collect in a person's air sacs and begin to grow. The air sacs may become filled with pus and fluid, which can make breathing more difficult, cause chest pain, and lead to a cough that is different from a person's usual chronic cough associated with their disease.

The good news is that pneumonia may be prevented through proper hand washing and vaccinations.

Symptoms of a Lung Infection 

If you or a loved one has COPD, a lung infection very well may occur at some point. While it's important to focus on preventing infection, you also want to be on top of one if signs and symptoms start to arise. In addition, it can be tricky sometimes to distinguish between a lung infection and a COPD flare.

The following signs and symptoms of lung infection should alert you to contact your doctor right away.

symptoms of a lung infection in COPD
Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell


Normal body temperature varies from person to person, but in general, it's around 98.6 F degrees. Having a fever—meaning a temperature at or higher than 100.4 F—is one sign that you may have a lung infection. With a fever, a person may also experience chills or shaking. 

Increased Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is one of the hallmark symptoms of COPD. However, if it begins to worsen, this could be a sign that you are developing a lung infection and need to contact your doctor. 

In addition to a feeling of breathlessness, rapid breathing (called tachypnea) and a rapid heart rate (called tachycardia) may also be signs of a lung infection. 

Productive Cough

While a chronic cough is another common symptom of COPD, a cough that gets worse and becomes more productive, meaning there is more mucus, may be a sign that you or your loved one have a lung infection brewing and medical attention is needed. The mucus of a productive cough is also known as sputum or phlegm.

Changes in Mucus

Many patients complain about having an increased amount of mucus when they have COPD. When a lung infection is present, however, mucus production not only increases in amount but it also generally gets thicker and stickier and changes in color. It can also have a foul odor to it.

Pleuritic Chest Pain

Chest pain associated with infection of the lungs is often described as a sharp, aching pain on one side that gets worse when breathing deeply. This is called pleuritic chest pain. It may also feel like pressure or tightness inside the chest wall. Regardless, pleuritic chest pain is not always a lung infection, meaning it can indicate other problems going on in the lung or even the heart.

Be sure to seek medical attention with any type of chest pain.

A Word From Verywell

A key point here is it can be hard sometimes to tell whether you are having a COPD flare or a lung infection (and both can co-occur), as the change from your baseline symptoms can be subtle. Because of this, it's best to seek out medical attention if you have any of the above symptoms, or if you simply feel like something is different or off. Sometimes your gut instinct is the best sign. 

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