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COPD Health Center

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Emphysema, Chronic Bronchitis, and Colds

If you have emphysema or chronic bronchitis, you know how miserable it feels when you catch a cold. After all, breathing is difficult enough with a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Not only does catching a cold worsen your ability to breathe and be active, but the cold virus increases your chance of getting a more serious respiratory tract infection. Here's what you should know to stay well.

What Are Emphysema and Chronic Bronchitis?

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are both chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) -- long-term conditions that cause a limitation in airflow, making it hard to breathe in and out. This limitation is not completely reversible. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis can occur separately or together and are usually the result of years of cigarette smoking, although exposure to coal dust and cotton dust are also risk factors. In addition, although it happens rarely, a genetic form of emphysema (alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency) can occur early in adulthood, even among people who have never smoked.

In the United States, COPD is vastly underdiagnosed. While only 15% to 20% of smokers are diagnosed with COPD, experts believe the majority of smokers develop some degree of airflow obstruction.

Emphysema comes on gradually after years of exposure to irritants such as cigarette smoke. With emphysema, the walls of the tiny air sacs that allow oxygen exchange in the lungs become damaged, so less air gets in and out of the lungs. This causes you to feel short of breath.

With chronic bronchitis, the airways that carry air to the lungs are inflamed and produce a lot of mucus. The mucus and inflammation cause the airways to narrow or become obstructed, making it difficult to breathe. Once the airways are irritated over a long period, the lining of the airways becomes thickened. This thickening of the airways results in an irritating cough (which produces mucus), hampered airflow, and lung scarring. The damaged airways then become a breeding place for bacterial infections, such as pneumonia.

What Happens When Someone With Emphysema or Chronic Bronchitis Catches A Cold?

A cold is a viral respiratory illness that mainly affects your nose and throat, but in some instances, it can affect your airways. When you have emphysema or chronic bronchitis, you already have some difficulty breathing because of the damaged airways in your lungs. Catching a respiratory virus along with COPD can hinder breathing even more and can cause the following changes in your symptoms:

  • An increase in phlegm
  • An increase in the thickness or stickiness of the phlegm
  • A change in phlegm color to yellow or green
  • The presence of blood in the phlegm
  • An increase in the severity of shortness of breath, cough, or wheezing
  • A general feeling of ill health
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased fatigue

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