8 Common Complications of COPD


Alia Bucciarelli

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You’re probably familiar with COPD’s classic symptoms: cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness. But you might not be aware of the potential complications of COPD and the medicines used to treat it.

Although the list may seem long, your doctor can help you manage both your COPD symptoms and any complications that arise.

  • 1.


    Shortness of breath that limits your activities can leave you down in the dumps. Don’t ignore how you’re feeling. See your doctor or another health care provider. Antidepressant medication or talk therapy can help. So can contact with other people who have COPD, through either a support group or a pulmonary rehab program.

    son consoling emotional elderly father
  • 2.


    Using steroids ups your risk for osteoporosis, or weakening of the bones. Both men and women can get the condition, which is also more common with older age. Your doctor can check your bone health with a bone density scan. To keep your bones strong, you may need prescription medicine along with calcium and vitamin D supplements. You might also want to hit the gym: Research suggests that progressively harder weight-bearing exercise, such as strength training, can boost bone health. Consult with your doctor before starting any exercise regimen.

    Older woman with broken bone
  • 3.


    Pneumonia is more common in people who take steroids for COPD symptoms. If you haven’t already, talk with your doctor about getting the pneumonia vaccine. Most people need only one dose in their lives. But a second dose is suggested for some people, including those who have used steroids for a long time to decrease swelling in their airways. 

    Lung X-ray
  • 4.

    Right-Sided Heart Failure

    COPD can lead to right-sided heart failure. That’s a condition in which the right side of your heart becomes enlarged and can’t pump properly. It’s brought on by ongoing high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs caused by low levels of oxygen in the blood. Symptoms include discomfort in the front of the chest and fainting spells. To control your symptoms, your doctor may recommend medicine, supplemental oxygen, or a low-salt diet. If you smoke, you should make a plan to quit. 

    close up of black male touching heart
  • 5.


    Compared with the general population, people with COPD have a higher risk for shingles, a painful disease caused by reactivation of the chickenpox virus. Steroid use seems to up the risk further: It’s double for people with COPD who use inhaled steroids and triple for those who use oral steroids. Ask your doctor about getting the one-time shingles vaccine, which can prevent the disease or lessen its effects.

    Shingles rash
  • 6.

    Trouble Sleeping

    COPD may make it hard for you to get a good night’s rest. One culprit could be your bronchodilator medicine. Most of them are stimulants. Coughing may also be to blame, as well as low oxygen levels, which are common in people with severe COPD. Tell your doctor if you have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep. You may need to see a sleep doctor, who can diagnose the problem. 

    Senior woman sleeping
  • 7.

    Unhealthy Weight

    Certain medicines used to treat COPD, such as steroids, can cause weight gain. In addition to raising your risk for heart problems and diabetes, being overweight makes COPD symptoms worse. That’s because the extra weight forces your body to work harder and keeps your lungs from expanding fully.

    Some people with COPD have the opposite problem: They can’t eat enough to maintain a healthy weight because the act of breathing burns so many calories. To make matters worse, eating leaves many people feeling breathless. A full stomach pushes against the lungs, making it hard to take a deep breath.  A registered dietitian can help you plan meals that are high in calories but easy to prepare.

  • 8.

    Urinary Symptoms

    In a recent study, older men who used inhaled anticholinergic drugs to control their COPD had a 48% higher risk for acute urinary retention—a painful and uncomfortable condition that causes the sudden inability to urinate. Call your doctor immediately if you have trouble urinating. You’ll need quick treatment to drain your bladder.

    woman in public bathroom
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