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Emphysema, Bronchitis, and Colds: Get Facts About Symptoms


If you have emphysema or chronic bronchitis, you know how miserable it feels
when you catch a cold. After all, breathing is difficult enough with a
obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Not only does catching a cold worsen your
ability to breathe and be active, but the cold virus increases your chance of
getting a more serious respiratory tract infection. Here’s what you must know to
stay well.

What is emphysema and chronic bronchitis?

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are chronic (long-term) lung diseases that
make it hard to breathe. Both diseases are chronic obstructive pulmonary
diseases (COPD), meaning they are conditions that cause a limitation in airflow.
Emphysema and chronic bronchitis can occur separately or together and are
usually the result of cigarette smoking. In addition, although it happens
rarely, a genetic form of emphysema can occur early in adulthood, even if you
never smoked.

In the United States, COPD is vastly under diagnosed. While only 15 to 20
percent of smokers are diagnosed with COPD, experts believe the majority of
smokers develop some degree of airflow obstruction.

Emphysema comes on gradually after years of exposure to irritants such as
cigarette smoke. With emphysema, the tiny air sacs in the lungs become damaged.
Because the tiny sacs lose their "stretch," less air gets in and out of the
lungs. This causes you to feel short of breath.

With chronic bronchitis, the airways that carry air to the lungs are inflamed
and produce a lot of mucus. The mucus and inflammation cause the airways to
narrow or become obstructed, making it difficult to breathe. Once the airways
are irritated over a long period, the lining of the airways becomes thickened.
This thickening of the airways results in an
irritating cough, hampered airflow,
and lung scarring. The damaged airways then become a breeding place for
bacterial infections such as pneumonia.

What happens with emphysema and chronic bronchitis and colds?

A cold is a viral respiratory illness that mainly affects your nose and
throat but in some instances can affect your airways. When you have emphysema or
chronic bronchitis, you already have some difficulty breathing because of the
damaged airways and lungs. Catching a respiratory virus along with COPD can
hinder breathing even more and can cause the following changes in your symptoms:

  • An increase in phlegm
  • An increase in the thickness or stickiness of the

  • A change in phlegm color to yellow or green
  • A presence of blood in the phlegm
  • An increase in the severity of
    shortness of breath, cough, or wheezing

  • A general feeling of ill health
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased fatigue

Why should I take colds seriously with emphysema or chronic bronchitis?

Catching a cold with emphysema or chronic bronchitis may also lead to
bacterial infections such as pneumonia. This occurs because of the airway
obstruction and the inability to cough out infected secretions of mucus.

Sometimes, patients with COPD are hospitalized because of a respiratory
infection and the worsening of their symptoms. Treatment may include inhaled
medications, oxygen, and antibiotics to treat any bacterial infection.
Antibiotics do not treat a cold.

To avoid more serious problems with emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and colds,
it’s important to always alert your doctor if your cold symptoms get worse.
Don’t wait until you have more serious breathing problems to contact your


COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is the same as adult-onset asthma.
See Answer

Which cold treatment should I use with emphysema or chronic bronchitis?

First, it is important to stay on your prescribed medications for emphysema
and chronic bronchitis. Then, to decide how to treat cold symptoms, it’s best to
talk with your doctor. You might treat the body aches and fever associated with
a cold with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. In addition, you should avoid
antihistamines that thicken mucus and make it even more difficult to cough up.

Most over-the-counter cold remedies are generally safe for people with
emphysema and chronic bronchitis. However, decongestants raise blood pressure
and some of the medications used to treat emphysema and chronic bronchitis also
raise heart rate. So, use decongestants with caution. Again, ask your doctor
about medications for cold symptoms.

Can I prevent colds if I have emphysema or chronic bronchitis?

The following guidelines can help:

  • Good hygiene can decrease respiratory infections such as colds. Prevent
    the spread of a cold virus by making sure you and your family members wash
    your hands regularly.

  • Check with your doctor about a pneumonia and
    influenza vaccine. You need
    a flu shot every year. One pneumonia shot is usually enough to protect you
    from a specific type of bacterial pneumonia.

  • Avoid crowds during cold and flu season, since colds and flu can cause
    serious problems for people with COPD.

  • Pay attention to healthy lifestyle habits by avoiding cigarette smoke
    and air pollutants; eating a balanced, healthy diet; and
    exercising to stay

  • Sinus infections can trigger breathing problems for those with emphysema
    and chronic bronchitis. Be aware of your sinus symptoms and report them
    immediately to your doctor to prevent worsening of breathing difficulties.

WebMD Medical Reference

SOURCES: American Lung Association: Need Help For Treatment Decisions with COPD? American Lung Association: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Fact Sheet. The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: COPD: Learn to Breathe Better. Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD): GOLD Guidelines At-A-Glance Desk Reference.

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on December 19, 2007
©2007 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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