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COPD and Heart Failure

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and heart failure both cause difficulty breathing. For people who have both COPD and heart failure, identifying the cause of breathing symptoms can be challenging.

Symptoms of COPD and Heart Failure

COPD and heart failure cause the same main symptom: shortness of breath with exertion. People with COPD, heart failure, or both, have a limited ability to exercise, climb stairs, or walk long distances. Difficulty breathing occurs for different reasons in COPD and heart failure.

People with COPD have difficulty exhaling all the air in their lungs because of lung damage -- often from years of smoking. When it takes longer to exhale completely, it’s hard to increase the rate of breathing. Most people with COPD breathe comfortably while resting. During exertion, though, breaths start coming in before air from the last breath has been exhaled, and shortness of breath results.

In people with heart failure, the heart does not pump blood efficiently. As in COPD, most people with heart failure can breathe easily when at rest. With activity, blood flow must increase, and the heart must pump harder and faster. If the heart can’t keep up, blood “backs up” into the lungs. This fluid congestion causes shortness of breath.

COPD and Left-Sided Heart Failure

Heart failure in the left ventricle is the most common form of heart failure. Left-sided heart failure is most often caused by high blood pressure or coronary artery disease. COPD and left-sided heart failure are not directly related. However, the two conditions may influence each other. For example, low oxygen in the blood from COPD may put excess strain on the heart, worsening left-sided heart failure. Excess fluid in the lungs from heart failure can make breathing even more difficult for someone with COPD.

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