The Link Between Common Respiratory Infections and COPD

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on April 19, 2023
4 min read

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a long-lasting lung disease that keeps you from breathing as well as you should. It shares some symptoms with respiratory infections like colds and flu, but is much less common than these infections.

When you have COPD, you're also more likely to catch colds, the flu, and pneumonia. These infections usually make your COPD symptoms worse and might further harm your lungs.

While most respiratory infections are caused by viruses or bacteria, the main cause of COPD is smoking.

Many of the symptoms of COPD look like those of respiratory infections. They include:

But COPD can also cause these symptoms:

  • Swelling in your feet, ankles, or legs
  • Flare-ups in which your symptoms get worse for several days at a time, then get better
  • Weight loss (in its later stages)
  • A blue tint to your lips and fingernails

The symptoms of respiratory infections tend to get better within a few days or weeks. But without treatment, COPD usually gets worse over time.

Colds are caused by viruses that spread from person to person. They most often happen during the winter and spring. Their symptoms include:

Colds are among the most common causes of COPD flare-ups. If you have COPD and catch a cold, don't stop taking your COPD medication. And ask your doctor before you take over-the-counter cold medicines. If you don't feel better in 7-10 days, see your doctor.

Flu is an infection caused by the influenza virus. Flu symptoms usually start suddenly. You might have:

When you have COPD, getting the flu puts you at higher risk for pneumonia. You're also more likely to end up in the hospital. Get a flu shot every year and take other flu-prevention steps like washing your hands frequently and avoiding people who are sick.

If you do get the flu, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medicines to help you recover more quickly.

Bronchitis happens when the tubes that deliver air to and from your lungs (your bronchial tubes) get inflamed and irritated. It often develops after you have a cold or the flu.

Its symptoms include:

  • A cough, usually with mucus
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Headache and body aches
  • Fatigue

Bronchitis can be acute (temporary) or chronic (long-lasting). Acute bronchitis usually gets better after about 3 weeks. Sometimes you may need antibiotics to help get better.

Chronic bronchitis is a type of COPD, usually caused by smoking. Doctors consider bronchitis chronic if you have a cough with mucus on most days for at least 3 months a year, for 2 years in a row.

Your COPD puts you at higher risk of getting seriously ill if you get infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Your COPD may pose extra harm because your damaged airways may have a harder time fighting off the coronavirus.

Doctors can’t say yet exactly how much risk your COPD can add. They do know that COVID-19 is likely to make you sicker.

If you're unsure whether you have COVID-19, COPD typically doesn’t give you a fever. If you run a temperature, about 100.4 F or above and have COPD, talk to your doctor if you notice any of the following:

  • Worsening breathing problems
  • More coughing
  • New types of coughing
  • Changes in phlegm color or amount
  • More wheezing
  • Lower blood oxygen levels at rest
  • Increased oxygen use
  • More use of rescue inhaler than it does people who don’t have the condition

Pneumonia is a lung infection most commonly caused by bacteria. It causes the tiny air sacs in your lungs to get irritated and fill with mucus. The symptoms can come on quickly, or slowly over a few days. They include:

People with COPD are at higher risk of getting pneumonia, especially when they're older. If you're over 65 and have COPD, you're almost eight times more likely to get pneumonia than people the same age without COPD.

That's because COPD inflames your airways, which makes them more prone to infection. For the same reason, people with COPD are more likely to develop serious problems from pneumonia and to take longer to recover.

The CDC recommends that people with lung disease get the pneumococcal vaccine to prevent pneumonia, especially when they're over 65.