10 Possible Complications of COPD

COPD makes it hard to breathe in as much air as you need. And without enough oxygen, you may have other problems.

Fortunately, there are simple things you can do. Stop smoking, exercise, and closely follow your doctor’s instructions about treating your COPD to prevent many of these complications.

1. Lung Infections

Your disease makes it harder to fight off lung infections like pneumonia. Getting sick can then make it harder for you to breathe.

Prevention is a must. Talk to your doctor about which vaccines to get. Some are for pneumonia, while others target illnesses that can make you more prone to pneumonia, like the flu and whooping cough. Wash your hands often to avoid picking up these germs.

2. Collapsed Lung (Pneumothorax)

COPD can damage lung tissue. And if air leaks into the space between a lung and your chest wall, that lung can collapse like a deflated balloon. You might have sudden shortness of breath, feel sharp chest pain or tightness, or have a hacking cough.

Treatments range from extra oxygen to surgery. To help prevent a collapsed lung from happening, stop smoking and see your COPD doctor regularly.

3. Poor Gas Exchange

Blood carries oxygen to cells throughout your body and carbon dioxide away from them. But because you’re not breathing in and out fully, you may have less oxygen than you need or more carbon dioxide than you should in your blood. Either of these may be why you have shortness of breath. A high carbon dioxide level can also give you a headache and make you woozy.

A simple device called an oximeter that goes on your fingertip can check your oxygen level. Extra oxygen should help get that level up to where your doctor recommends. But if you’re using oxygen, keep the flow within the range your doctor prescribed. Sometimes, too much oxygen can decrease your breathing rate. 

4. Heart Problems

Low blood oxygen levels can lead to narrowed arteries and higher blood pressure in the blood vessels that go from your heart to your lungs, as well as within your lungs. That can put a lot of stress on your heart, making it work harder than it should. It could become right-sided heart failure, a permanent condition in which your heart is too weak to do its job well.

The right side of your heart may get bigger. Doctors call this cor pulmonale. It can cause irregular heartbeats, trouble with blood circulation, an enlarged liver, and swelling in your feet and legs.

Being active helps keep your blood moving so you’re less likely to get serious blood clots that can travel to your lungs.

5. Atrial Fibrillation

COPD can damage nerve fibers that connect to the heart and cause unusual heartbeats called arrhythmia. Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common arrhythmia. In a study of more than 1.3 million people with COPD, about 18% also had AFib.

It’s caused by erratic beating in your heart’s two upper chambers, the atria. Some people describe AFib as feeling like a flutter, a racing heart, skipped beats, or lightheadedness, but others feel nothing at all.

AFib is more likely to start as your COPD worsens. If you have both conditions, it’s important to control them. AFib complicates COPD, and COPD can make it harder for AFib treatments to work.

Follow your doctor’s advice to keep your COPD symptoms and AFib in check. Doing that will go a long way toward keeping you healthier longer. And, if you smoke, stop. Smoking can cause physical changes in your atria that can lead to or worsen AFib.

Treatment for AFib may include taking medications or getting a procedure called cardioversion, which sends electrical impulses to your heart to restore it to a regular rhythm.

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10 Possible Complications of COPD

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