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COPD and COVID-19 Can Be a Deadly Combination

Today's Medicine
Published: Nov. 12, 2020

 

At least 16 million Americans have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and many more may not know they’re living with it.

It can be a scary and challenging disease. And by its nature – causing airflow and breathing issues – COPD puts a person at higher risk for severe illness if they’re infected with other diseases like pneumonia or COVID-19.

There is no cure for COPD, but it can be managed and treated under ideal circumstances. That’s all the more reason for everyone to take seriously diseases like COVID-19 and do all we can to protect ourselves and others by stopping the spread.

 

COPD Basics

Over time, COPD causes a breakdown of the airways that can cause:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Frequent coughing
  • Increased phlegm or sputum production

The single best way to prevent or slow the progression of COPD is to stop smoking. And if you don’t smoke, don’t start. That said, not everyone who smokes will get COPD, and not everyone with COPD is or was a smoker. The disease can also be influenced by:

  • Secondhand smoke
  • Occupational or environmental exposures
  • Genetics

COPD is a progressive disease, and it will inevitably cause irreversible damage. How fast that happens, however, may depend on you. If you have COPD, it’s important that you:

  • Take all your medications as prescribed, especially inhaled therapies
  • Avoid exposure to irritants or toxins that tend to worsen your symptoms
  • See your health care provider regularly

 

COPD and COVID-19

While COVID-19 affects people differently, its attack on the respiratory system is a common symptom – making it all the more dangerous if you have COPD. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists COPD as an underlying medical condition that puts you at a higher risk for severe illness if you have COVID-19. 

And by severe, the CDC means just that: “Severe illness from COVID-19 is defined as hospitalization, admission to the ICU, intubation or mechanical ventilation, or death.”

We’re still learning about COVID-19, but we believe that people with COPD are less able to tolerate the lung inflammation that COVID-19 can cause. While many people without underlying conditions tolerate such inflammation and recover relatively quickly, it can be a much different story if you have COPD. In some cases, you may develop severe illness requiring oxygen therapy or even intubation and a ventilator. 

And when someone requires a ventilator, outcomes often are much worse. It can take weeks, months or longer to recover, and lung function may never match what it was before illness.

That all emphasizes what so many have said about COVID-19: Our efforts to stop its transmission are crucial to the health and safety of the more vulnerable among us.

 

Steps You Should Take

Again, it’s important that people with COPD take care of themselves by taking their prescribed medications, avoiding triggers that worsen their symptoms and seeing their health care provider regularly. It’s also wise to stay current on CDC guidelines and recommendations and to reach out to your provider with questions.

If you’re diagnosed with COVID-19, call your provider immediately. We’ll help guide you through the best, most personalized treatment plan possible. Many people can manage COVID-19 without ever leaving home, but the fact is that COVID-19 can progress rapidly and be deadly in some cases. By communicating regularly with your health care team, we can respond quickly to get you the most appropriate care.

Furthermore, everyone can play a role in protecting people with COPD and other underlying conditions. Remember to take COVID-19 safety precautions, including:

  • Wearing a mask
  • Practicing social distancing
  • Washing your hands frequently and properly
  • Staying home if you’re sick

I can't stress how important it is to protect yourself during this time. Many of my patients say, "I never thought this would happen to me.” But it can.

The good news is that we have proven ways to treat COPD, fight back against COVID-19 and keep ourselves safe and healthy. 

More resources

Adam D. Wells

About the Author:

When it comes to The Meaning of Care, Dr. Adam D. Wells believes it goes deeper than medicine: “The most important thing in terms of treating a patient is remembering that they’re a person – remembering there’s more to them than their disease.”

Dr. Wells is a pulmonologist with Pulmonary Medicine Specialists at Methodist Physicians Clinic Westroads Office Park.

He received his medical degree from the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) before completing an internal medicine residency there. He was also internal medicine chief resident at UNMC/Omaha VA Medical Center and completed a pulmonary/critical care medicine fellowship at UNMC.

He was previously a pulmonologist and assistant professor at the Creighton University School of Medicine.

See More Articles by Adam D. Wells