Complications of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
May 22, 2024

Complications of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a collection of lung diseases that can lead to blocked airways. This can make it hard to breathe and cause coughing, wheezing, and mucus production.

People with COPD can often develop other conditions and diseases related to COPD.

For those living with COPD, every breath can be difficult. People with COPD can be at risk for serious complications that can affect their daily lives, as well as their long-term health. Here are a few of those complications, along with some tips for preventing them.


Pneumonia happens when germs like bacteria or viruses enter the lungs, creating an infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), common viral causes of pneumonia are:

  • influenza
  • respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae

Pneumonia is especially dangerous for those with a weakened pulmonary system, such as those who have COPD. If you have COPD, it can cause further inflammatory damage in your lungs. This can lead to a chain reaction of illnesses that can weaken the lungs even further.

Overall good health is key to preventing infections in people with COPD. Here are some tips for reducing your risk of infection:

  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially water, to maintain healthy bronchioles while thinning out mucus and secretions.
  • Quit smoking, if applicable, to maintain a healthy immune system and lung health.
  • Wash your hands regularly.
  • Avoid contact with people you know are ill with respiratory infections.
  • Discourage sick friends and family from visiting your home.
  • Get a pneumonia vaccine and an annual flu vaccine.

Sleep problems

If you have COPD or other breathing problems, it might keep you up at night. For example, you might wake up throughout the night with coughing, wheezing, or breathlessness.

According to research, sleep disturbances in people with COPD are very common, so you’re not alone.

Some people with COPD also have sleep apnea. This means that for brief periods of time, you stop breathing during your sleep. You might feel tired and groggy in the morning because you’re not getting adequate, uninterrupted rest during the night.

Signs of sleep disturbances to look out for include:

  • feeling groggy in the morning
  • snoring
  • waking up during the night
  • experiencing morning headaches

Mental health challenges

While anxiety and depression are relatively common mental health conditions, they’re even more prevalent in people with COPD. In fact, one 2022 study found that 60.4% of participants with COPD had symptoms of both depression and anxiety.

If you have COPD, keep an eye out for warning signs that you may be having a hard time with your mental health. Look for symptoms like:

  • sadness
  • feeling hopeless
  • feeling anxious or worried
  • irritability
  • lack of energy
  • feeling more or less hungry than usual
  • sleep problems

Heart failure

One of the most critical complications of COPD is heart failure.

Because people with COPD have lower levels of oxygen in their bloodstream — and because lung function is so closely intertwined with heart function — their heart will often be affected when their lungs are diseased.

In some cases, this can cause severe pulmonary hypertension. This is high blood pressure in the blood vessels that bring blood to the heart. Eventually, this can progress into heart failure.

However, adequately treating COPD can help prevent this from happening.

The first step to preventing heart failure is to slow the progression of COPD. Here are a few simple ways you can do this:

  • Engage in mild to moderate physical activity to build up heart and lung stamina.
  • Stick to your COPD treatment plan as directed by your doctor.
  • Give up smoking as soon as possible.

Lung cancer

Since COPD often can be attributed to smoking, it’s not surprising that people with COPD are also at a greater risk of developing lung cancer.

However, smoking isn’t the only link between COPD and lung cancer. Exposure to other lung-irritating chemicals in the environment can increase your chances of getting COPD or lung cancer. Genetics may also play a role.

Since lung cancer can be serious, it’s important that people with COPD avoid factors that further damage the lungs, especially smoking.


COPD doesn’t cause diabetes mellitus, but it can make it harder to manage its symptoms.

One significant complication of having both COPD and diabetes is medication. Some of the drugs used to treat COPD can cause issues with blood sugar control, which can be an issue if you have diabetes.

Diabetes can also damage the cardiovascular system, which can carry over and affect lung function. This has the potential to make your COPD symptoms worse.

Learning to manage your blood sugar, usually with the help of your doctor, can help keep COPD symptoms from becoming overwhelming. Unmanaged diabetes that causes persistently high blood sugar levels can lead to reduced lung function.

Work with your doctor to ensure that the medications they prescribe will work to treat both conditions with minimal adverse effects on either. This can help you effectively manage these two conditions together.


The gradual mental decline of many people with severe COPD can be tough on loved ones. Cognitive impairment, which happens in dementia, is especially prevalent in older people with COPD. This can make managing your symptoms even more difficult.

COPD is a risk factor for developing dementia. It can cause low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels in the brain, and these can harm brain tissue. The damage caused by smoking also plays a role in developing dementia.

You can help reduce your chances of dementia by taking these steps:

  • Maintain a moderate weight.
  • Manage diabetes and cholesterol levels.
  • Don’t smoke tobacco products.
  • Keep your mind sharp by regularly engaging in mentally stimulating activities, such as crossword puzzles and other brain games.

End stages of COPD

Doctors are usually unable to give an exact prognosis after a person receives a COPD diagnosis. While some people may live only a matter of months, others live for years.

Life expectancy depends greatly on a person’s age at the time of diagnosis and other health conditions. Those with moderate to severe COPD will usually have reduced life expectancy despite their age.

Respiratory failure is a common COPD-related cause of death. After months, years, or even decades of living with lung problems, the lungs eventually stop working altogether.

Heart failure is also a factor in COPD fatalities, with COPD often contributing to heart problems.

What is the long-term outlook?

COPD is a serious condition, but there is the potential that its progression can be slowed with timely and correct medical care.

Knowing the causes, getting diagnosed and starting treatment early, and understanding how to try to prevent the disease from getting worse are keys to staying healthy and enjoying a long life.

Last medically reviewed on February 29, 2024

Written By Stephanie Faris

Edited By Katie Yockey

Medically Reviewed By Nick Villalobos, MD

Copy Edited By Nastassja Myer