Patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can struggle with a variety of related symptoms and issues. COPD causes reduced lung airflow, often producing symptoms such as (Mayo Clinic, 2020, 7):
- Weight loss
- Shortness of breath
- Reduced energy
- Increased mucus
- Stressed breathing
These symptoms can be difficult to differentiate between symptoms of the disease and indications of another issue, such as a lung infection. If you suffer from COPD, it’s essential that you’re able to determine when a lung infection is present so you can treat accordingly and prevent further complications.
What Is a Lung Infection?
There are three common types of lung infection, each stemming from either viruses, bacteria, or sometimes fungi (Luo, Cafasso, 2019, 1-4):
- Pneumonia – Bacteria, viruses, and fungi can cause pneumonia to occur. With this infection type, the lung’s air sacs can become inflamed and fluid-filled.
- Bronchitis – Usually caused by bacteria, bronchitis occurs when there is an infection in the tubes that transport air from your lungs.
- Bronchiolitis – Most commonly presented in infants, virus-based bronchiolitis can lead to the lungs and corresponding air passages becoming infected.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Lung Infection
Due to COPD compromising lung function in patients, it’s vital that signs and symptoms of lung infection are watched for and addressed quickly to reduce the chances of dangerous complications. Unfortunately, lung infections can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from common symptoms of COPD. If you are experiencing one or more of the following symptoms, you should consult with your physician as soon as possible to determine if a lung infection may be present (Luo, Cafasso, 2019, 9-19):
- Increased Mucus – Yellow/gray, clear, white, or green thick mucus can indicate an infection is present.
- Fever – Lung infections can cause high fevers, often above 105°F, and be accompanied by chills, sweating, headaches, weakness, muscle aches, and dehydration. If you experience a fever over 102°F, you should contact your physician right away.
- Sharp Chest Pains – Sharp or stabbing chest pains can occur while breathing or coughing.
- Sneezing and Runny Nose – While sneezing and runny noses don’t always result from lung infections, they can commonly occur when infection is present.
- Muscle and Body Aches – Myalgia, or muscle pain and aches, can be experienced due to muscle inflammation stemming from a lung infection.
- Increased Shortness of Breath – Shortness of breath is a commonly experienced symptom of COPD; however, if you notice an increased difficulty in breathing or more frequent shortness of breath, you should contact a doctor as soon as possible.
- Bluish Skin or Lips – Lack of adequate oxygen can result in a bluish appearance in the skin, lips, and nails.
- Wheezing and Rattling Sounds – When your airways have become inflamed or narrowed due to infection, you can experience wheezing when exhaling. Rattling or cracking sounds can also sometimes be heard in the base of the lung.
- Fatigue – When your body is fighting off a lung infection, you can experience increased fatigue and tiredness.
How Are Lung Infections Diagnosed?
While the common symptoms listed can indicate a possible lung infection, proper diagnosis will require a trip to see your physician. During your visit, one or more of the following methods may be used to diagnose you (Luo, Cafasso, 2019, 24-25):
- Temperature reading
- Medical history and symptom discussion
- Chest x-ray, CT scan, or other imaging to view lung condition
- Testing of mucus
- Oxygen level measuring via pulse oximeter
- Checking for cultures through blood draws or throat swabs
- Checking your complete blood count (CBC)
Treatments for Lung Infection
While many lung infections will require a visit to your physician to begin medication treatment, there are things you can do at home to lessen the impacts of symptoms and increase your body’s ability to overcome the infection (Luo, Cafasso, 2019, 26-29):
- Increase your water intake
- Drink hot, herbal tea with honey, lemon, or ginger
- For fever reduction, use ibuprofen or acetaminophen
- Rest frequently to build strength to fight the infection
- Use humidifier therapy to keep a moist environment
- Gargle with warm salt water to help reduce inflammation and fight off bacteria
What Complications Can Occur?
Severe or untreated lung infections can lead to serious or life-threatening complications. For those who suffer from COPD, lung infections can leave you especially vulnerable due to your lung’s already weakened ability to handle outside pollutants and infections; This makes remaining vigilant at the first signs of a possible infection a top priority. Some lung infection complications can include (Web MD, 2018, 6-10):
- Lung abscesses, or pus-filled pockets in the lungs
- Bacterial blood infections, otherwise known as septic shock or bacteremia
- Pleurisy, or enhanced pain with breathing resulting from lung pleurae inflammation
- Heart failure due to stress on the heart, infection, lack of oxygen, or other unknown causes
- Kidney failure from reduced heart blood flow and/or septic shock
- Fluid-filled lungs leading to respiratory failure
When to Seek Urgent Medical Care
If you have COPD, paying attention to possible signs of lung infection are crucial to your health. Being proactive and involving your physician when you see indicators of having an infection can help reduce your chances of further complications. That being said, if you notice any of the following symptoms, you should seem urgent medical care (Luo, Cafasso, 2019, 35-36):
- Sharp or continued chest pains
- Confusion or hallucinations
- Neck stiffness
- Struggling to breathe
Steps for Prevention
While there is no way to ensure you won’t get a lung infection, there are steps for prevention you can take to mitigate and reduce your chances. Remaining proactive to stay safe and healthy while you have COPD can make all the difference. Here are some things you can do to reduce your risks of lung infection and promote health (Luo, Cafasso, 2019, 37):
- Don’t smoke
- Wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds
- Stay up-to-date on flu shots and other immunizations, such as pneumococcal vaccines
- Don’t share drinks or food
- Maintain a healthy sleep schedule
- Avoid crowds
Elaine K. Luo, M.D. and Jacquelyn Cafasso, 2019, 10 Symptoms of Lung Infection. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/symptoms-of-lung-infection
Pneumonia. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pneumonia/symptoms-causes/syc-20354204
What Are the Complications of Pneumonia? WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/lung/complications-pneumonia