Symptoms of Lung Infection in COPD

Infection can be tricky to distinguish from a COPD flare

In This Article

If you or a loved one has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung infection very well may occur at some point. The inflamed, narrowed airways and damaged air sacs characteristic of the condition make one more prone to developing lung infections, particularly pneumonia. While it's important to focus on preventing infection, you will also want to be on top of identifying symptoms, should they arise.

To complicate things, it can be tricky to distinguish between a lung infection and a COPD flare-up. The more you know, the more prepared you'll be.

symptoms of a lung infection in COPD
Verywell / JR Bee

Causes

Lung infections happen when pathogens 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 the usual chronic cough one associates with their disease.

The primary types of lung infection include pneumonia, bronchitis, and bronchiolitis. These conditions are typically caused by bacteria and viruses. It's much rarer for a lung infection to be caused by fungi, but it can happen. Fungal infections are generally more common in people who have weakened immune systems.

Frequent Symptoms

The following signs and symptoms of lung infection should alert you to contact your doctor right away, especially if you have COPD.

Fever

Normal body temperature varies from person to person, but in general, it's around 98.6 degrees F. Having a fever—meaning a temperature at or higher than 100.4 degrees—is one sign that you may have a lung infection and your body is working to fight it off. With a fever, you 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 (tachypnea) and a rapid heart rate (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 (i.e., there is more mucus coming up) may be a sign that a lung infection is brewing and medical attention is needed.

Changes in Mucus

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

Rare Symptoms

Rarer signs and symptoms may depend on the specific type of lung infection you have. Here too, be sure to seek immediate help for any symptom if you feel like your breathing ability is getting worse.

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 (pleuritic chest pain). It may also feel like pressure or tightness inside the chest wall.

However, pleuritic chest pain can also indicate that problems other than infection are going on in the lung or even the heart.

Be sure to seek medical attention if you're experiencing any type of chest pain.

Cyanosis

Your skin, lips, and nails may take on a slightly bluish cast, a symptom called cyanosis. This is rare yet significant, as it means that you're not getting enough oxygen in your bloodstream and should seek medical help immediately.

Complications

People with COPD are at higher risk of lung infection due to a reduced ability to clear bacteria, dust, and other pollutants. Having COPD simultaneously with a lung infection can seriously exacerbate your COPD symptoms and make breathing much more difficult, and it may also lead to other serious complications that can potentially damage the lungs and even be life-threatening if left untreated.

Such complications include the following:

  • Emphysema: A collection of infected fluid (pus) in the space between the lung and the surrounding membrane (pleural space), an empyema can build up and put pressure on the lungs.
  • Pleural effusion: An excess of fluid in the pleural space that can make it hard for the lungs to fully expand and breathe deeply
  • Abscess: Often resulting from aspiration pneumonia, an infection that develops after you inhale food, liquid, or vomit into your lungs, a lung abscess is a rare but serious complication that forms when the body's immune system attempts to wall off the infection. Antibiotics are usually required.
  • Sepsis: An untreated abscess could result in the onset of sepsis, a dangerous overactive and toxic immune response. Sepsis is a rare yet life-threatening potential complication of lung infection.

When to See a Doctor

Lung infections can get worse if left untreated, especially when you have COPD. If you've noticed a change in mucus, cough or wheezing that seems worse than usual, call your doctor. If you have a fever and COPD, seek medical help quickly.

Antibiotics may be required if you have a bacterial infection, but if you have a viral infection, you might need to wait it out and let your body fend off the virus on its own. However, you may need additional medical support to help your airways remain clear and open while you work to fight the infection. Seek help from your doctor in either case.

COPD Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman

A Word From Verywell

A key point here is it can be hard sometimes to tell whether you are having a COPD flare-up 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—especially a fever—or if you simply feel like something is different or a little off. Sometimes your gut instinct is the best sign.

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