Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – called COPD for short – is a term used to refer to a group of chronic lung diseases related to poor airflow to and from the lungs. Most commonly, people with COPD have either emphysema or bronchitis, but asthma may be included as well.
People with COPD have a higher than average risk of developing lung infections, such as pneumonia, which puts them at higher risk of developing sepsis.
Sepsis, which was often called blood poisoning, is the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Like strokes or heart attacks, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment.
Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, or urinary tract infections. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who do survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs don’t work properly), and/or amputations.
What is COPD?
COPD is a chronic and progressive illness that cannot be cured. It is an inflammatory lung disease. If you have COPD, damage to your airways, swelling (inflammation), or an excess of mucus make it hard for air to pass to and from your lungs. According to the National Institutes of Health, “COPD is a major cause of disability, and it is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Currently, 16 million people are diagnosed with COPD. Many more people may have the disease and not even know it…” The CDC says: “In the United States, COPD affects more than 15 million adults, and many more do not know they have it. More than half of those diagnosed are women. COPD is a major cause of disability, and it is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States…”
What causes COPD?
In the United States, the primary cause of COPD is tobacco smoke, followed by air pollution. Frequent infections and family history may also play a role.
Who gets COPD?
Aside from smoking being the major risk factor for developing COPD, those at higher risk are/have:
- Aged 65–74 years
- Non-Hispanic whites
- Unemployed, retired, or unable to work
- Less than a high school education
- Lower incomes
- Divorced, widowed, or separated
- A history of asthma
What are COPD symptoms?
Because COPD involves obstructed airflow, the symptoms are related to breathing. They include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Sputum (phlegm) production
COPD may be a respiratory illness, but it can significantly affect other parts of your life. People with severe COPD may have trouble eating a healthy diet. It can be hard to prepare meals and eat if you are short of breath. If you are not well nourished, you may be more susceptible to infection.
Shortness of breath may also reduce how much physical exercise you get and moving around is a big part of staying healthy overall. As well, being short of breath or coughing a lot can make sleeping very difficult, resulting in fatigue, which leads to other difficulties.
How do we treat COPD?
There is no cure for the condition, but there is treatment to help manage symptoms, reduce the number of exacerbations (periods of worsening illness), and slow the disease progress. Recommendations may include:
- Stop smoking
- Avoid air pollution
- Take medications, such as bronchodilators or inhaled corticosteroids
- Oral medications, especially if you’re having a crisis and need emergency treatment
- Do deep breathing exercises
- Increase your physical activity
- Eat a healthy diet
- Get your flu and pneumonia vaccines to reduce the risk of developing respiratory infections
- Breathing supplemental oxygen (oxygen delivered by tank)
If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.”
The information here is also available as a Sepsis Information Guide, a downloadable format for easier printing.
Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.
Suggested Citation: Sepsis Alliance. Sepsis and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). 2023. https://www.sepsis.org/sepsisand/copd/
Updated February 7, 2023.