Emphysema, Chronic Bronchitis, and Colds

Medically Reviewed by Paul Boyce, MD on March 18, 2021

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 production
  • 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 because of cough and breathing problems
  • Increased fatigue

Why Should I Take Colds Seriously With Emphysema or Chronic Bronchitis?

Respiratory infections may be responsible for up to 70% of the incidents of worsened COPD. Catching a cold with emphysema or chronic bronchitis may lead to bacterial infections such as pneumonia. This occurs because of the airway obstruction and the inability to cough up infected mucus.

Sometimes, patients with COPD need to be hospitalized because of a respiratory infection and the worsening of their symptoms. Treatment may include inhaled medications, oxygen, and antibiotics to treat any bacterial infection. Antibiotics do not treat a cold.

To avoid more serious problems with emphysema and chronic bronchitis, it's important to always alert your doctor if your cold symptoms get worse. Don't wait until you have more serious breathing problems to contact your doctor.

Which Cold Treatment Should I Use With Emphysema or Chronic Bronchitis?

First, it is important to stay on your prescribed medications for emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Then, to decide how to treat cold symptoms, it's best to talk with your doctor. You might treat the body aches and fever associated with a cold with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Although antihistamines can be helpful if you have mild allergy symptoms, you should avoid them if you constantly have thick mucus; they may make it more difficult for you to cough up the phlegm.

Most over-the-counter cold remedies are generally safe for people with emphysema and chronic bronchitis. However, decongestants raise blood pressure and some of the drugs used to treat emphysema and chronic bronchitis can also raise your heart rate. So, use decongestants with caution, especially if you have high blood pressure or other heart issues in addition to COPD. Again, ask your doctor about medications for cold symptoms.

Can I Prevent Colds if I Have Emphysema or Chronic Bronchitis?

Here are some tips to help you avoid catching a cold:

  • Make sure you wash your hands regularly.
  • Avoid crowds during cold and flu season.
  • Avoid cigarette smoke and air pollutants.
  • Eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly.

Other tips for staying healthy with COPD during cold and flu season:

  • Stop smoking.
  • Make sure you are using your inhalers correctly.
  • Check with your doctor about getting an influenza vaccine. You need a flu shot every year to help keep you from getting the flu.
  • Check with your doctor about getting a pneumonia vaccine. This will help protect you from getting very sick from a common type of bacterial pneumonia. 
  • Report sinus problems to your health care provider; sinus infections can trigger breathing problems for those with emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Show Sources

American Lung Association: ''Need Help For Treatment Decisions with COPD?'' and ''Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Fact Sheet.''
The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: ''COPD: Learn to Breathe Better.''
Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD): GOLD Guidelines At-A-Glance Desk Reference.

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