Extra Steps to Prevent Flu for COPD Patients

By Our Partner, WebMD tags: Chronic Bronchitis, COPD, Emphysema, Flu

It is always important to take precautions to prevent illness like common cold or flu. The tips in this article from our partner, WebMD, are great for everyone—especially those with emphysema or chronic bronchitis. 

If you have emphysema or chronic bronchitis, you need to be extra vigilant in preventing flu. You already know that with emphysema or chronic bronchitis it's difficult to breathe under normal circumstances. But the combination of lung disease and flu, a respiratory viral infection, worsens your breathing problem, making it very difficult to breathe through obstructed, inflamed airways.

In addition, getting flu with emphysema or chronic bronchitis increases the chance of bacterial infections such as pneumonia. This serious infection occurs because of the airway obstruction and inability to cough out infected mucus.

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What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a term that describes these two illnesses -- emphysema and chronic bronchitis -- both of which limit airflow. This limitation makes it very difficult to breathe and be active. Emphysema destroys air sacs deep in the lungs, while chronic bronchitis causes inflammation, congestion, and scarring in the airways.

According to the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD), COPD is preventable and treatable. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis can occur separately or together and usually result from cigarette smoking. In addition, although it happens rarely, a genetic form of emphysema can occur early in adulthood, even if you've never smoked.

What Are the Symptoms of Flu With COPD?

With COPD (emphysema or chronic bronchitis) and flu, your normal COPD symptoms will worsen. Specifically, cough increases in frequency and severity, mucus production increases in volume or thickness, and shortness of breath increases.

With COPD and flu, you may also have the following signs and symptoms:  

  • Fever (usually high)
  • Severe aches and pains in the joints and muscles and around the eyes
  • Generalized weakness
  • Ill appearance with warm, flushed skin and red, watery eyes
  • Headache
  • Sore throat and watery discharge from the nose

 For in-depth information, see WebMD's Flu Symptoms: What You Might Feel

 What's the Treatment for Flu With COPD?

First, if you have emphysema or chronic bronchitis, it's important to stay on your prescribed COPD medications, such as bronchodilators or inhaled steroids. Also, check with your doctor before taking any over-the-counter flu treatment. If your doctor approves, you might treat the body aches and fever associated with flu with acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

With COPD, avoid antihistamines and decongestants, because these flu treatments can thicken mucus, making it even more difficult to cough up. Decongestants raise blood pressure, and some of the drugs used to treat COPD also raise heart rate. They should be used with caution.

Cough medicines are not generally recommended for patients with COPD because they have not been shown to improve COPD symptoms. Although cough can be a bothersome symptom, cough suppressants should be avoided or used with caution, because they may reduce your ability to clear secretions from your lungs and may increase the risk of lung infection.

Sometimes, patients with COPD and flu are hospitalized because of a respiratory infection and the worsening of their symptoms. Treatment during hospitalization may include inhaled medications, oxygen, and antibiotics to treat any bacterial infection.

With COPD, avoid antihistamines and decongestants, because these flu treatments can thicken mucus, making it even more difficult to cough up. Decongestants raise blood pressure, and some of the drugs used to treat COPD also raise heart rate. They should be used with caution.

Cough medicines are not generally recommended for patients with COPD because they have not been shown to improve COPD symptoms. Although cough can be a bothersome symptom, cough suppressants should be avoided or used with caution, because they may reduce your ability to clear secretions from your lungs and may increase the risk of lung infection.

Sometimes, patients with COPD and flu are hospitalized because of a respiratory infection and the worsening of their symptoms. Treatment during hospitalization may include inhaled medications, oxygen, and antibiotics to treat any bacterial infection.

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How Can I Prevent Flu With COPD?

The following guidelines can help to prevent flu with COPD: 

  1. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly several times each day to help prevent the spread of flu.
  2. Check with your doctor about an influenza vaccine. You need a flu shot every year. The best time to get a flu shot is October or November, but you can get a flu shot in January or even later. Flu season can begin as early as October and last through May, so make sure you're taking preventive steps. Urge friends, family members, and co-workers to get flu shots. It's easier to prevent flu if those around you are not sick with flu.
  3. Also, get a pneumococcal vaccination, which helps prevent a certain type of pneumonia. In some patients with COPD, the vaccine should be repeated every 5 to 6 years. Talk to your doctor to see what's best in your situation.
  4. Avoid crowds during cold and flu season.

When Should I Call the Doctor About Flu With COPD?  

If you have COPD, see your doctor regularly, even if you are feeling fine. Make a list of your breathing symptoms, and think about any activities that you can no longer do because of shortness of breath. Bring to each doctor's visit a list of all the medications you are taking.

If you get the flu, ask your doctor about the antiviral drugs oseltamivir (Tamiflu), peramivir (Rapivab), and zanamivir (Relenza). Antiviral drugs may help decrease the severity of flu symptoms if taken within the first 48 hours.

This article is offered in partnership with WebMD. To view the original content, please visit WebMD.com.