COPD and the Flu: What to Know

If you or someone you know has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), it’s extra important to do all you can to avoid the flu -- including getting a flu shot every year -- and to get treatment fast if the virus strikes.

The flu can be hard on your body. It can make your muscles ache and drain your energy. It can also cause you to have a headache, bad cough, and a fever.

Most healthy people recover from these symptoms in a week or two. But for people with COPD or other long-term medical conditions, the flu can be worse and can cause serious complications.

The Flu Is Worse with COPD

Viruses cause the flu (short for influenza). It’s a respiratory illness that’s contagious – meaning you can get it from other people and pass it to other people.

Having COPD makes you more likely to have serious complications from the flu. Being older than 65 also makes the flu more serious, as do certain long-term health problems.

Flu Prevention

One important way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot every year. Make sure to get your shot before the flu season kicks into high gear. Get vaccinated in October or November.

If you live with other people, they should all get a flu shot, too. This will help prevent them from getting sick with the flu and passing the virus on to you.

A few other ways to prevent the flu:

  • Avoid crowded areas as much as you can.
  • Wash your hands as often as possible. Use warm water and mild soap and lather for about 20 seconds.
  • Avoid touching your hands to your mouth, eyes, or nose to help keep germs out of your body.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Drink plenty of water.

Symptoms of the Flu

The flu can cause:

When you have COPD, there can be times when your breathing gets worse. These are called exacerbations or flare-ups. They can happen when you have an infection.

Since the flu can cause respiratory infections, it’s important to recognize the signs of an exacerbation so you can get treatment right away. Watch for:

  • Coughing more than normal
  • Wheezing more than normal
  • Feeling shorter of breath than normal or having rapid/shallow breathing
  • Having more mucus or a different color mucus that looks yellow, green, tan, or bloody
  • Having a fever
  • Feeling sleepy or disoriented
  • Having swollen feet or ankles

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Flu Treatment If You Have COPD

The kind of medicine your doctor prescribes will depend on the specific strain of flu that’s circulating.

In some cases, antiviral medications can help. These medications can lower your risk of developing the flu if you’ve been exposed to the virus. They can also lower your chances of having complications, especially if you can’t get the flu shot.

If your flu develops into a bacterial respiratory infection and your COPD symptoms get worse, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. But since viruses cause most of these types of infections, antibiotics probably aren’t the answer.

There is one antibiotic called azithromycin that may lower your chance of developing COPD flare-ups. Your doctor will decide whether this is the right treatment for you.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on December 12, 2016

Sources

SOURCES: 

CDC: “Flu Symptoms & Complications,” “People at High Risk of Developing Flu–Related Complications.”

HealthPlus.org: “When COPD Symptoms Get Worse.”

International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: “Influenza infection in COPD,” “Occasional review: Influenza in COPD: pathogenesis, prevention, and treatment.”

COPD Foundation: “Staying Healthy and Avoiding Exacerbations.”

NPS MedicineWise: “COPD and Antibiotics.”

UpToDate: “Patient education: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) treatments (Beyond the Basics).”

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