It’s a depressing thought but autumn is just around the corner and with a change in weather there comes the increased chance of catching a cold. If you have COPD or emphysema then you probably already know how miserable it feels when you catch a cold as breathing is already a strain. Not only does catching a cold worsen your ability to breathe, but it also increases your chance of catching a more serious respiratory tract infection.
A cold is a viral respiratory illness, which normally affects your nose and throat but can affect your airways as well. A COPD patient already suffers from damaged airways and a cold will hinder your breathing further and cause other changes:
• An increase in phlegm
• An increase in the thickness or stickiness of the phlegm
• A change in phlegm colour to yellow or green
• The 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
Respiratory infections are responsible for 70% of cases where a patient’s COPD status has worsened. Catching a cold can open you up to a greater risk of developing more severe respiratory infections. Pneumonia is a common infection in COPD patients as the airways are obstructed and the body cannot cough up infected mucus.
Sometimes patients will require hospitalisation due to the worsening of their symptoms from a respiratory infection. It is important to always inform your doctor if your cold symptoms get worse and not wait until you have more serious breathing problems.
If you catch a cold then ensure you stay on your prescribed COPD medications and then decide, with your doctor, what else to take to treat the cold symptoms.
You might treat the body aches and fever associated with a cold with ibuprofen. Although antihistamines can be helpful if you have mild allergy symptoms, you should avoid them if you constantly have thick mucus; they may make it more difficult for you to cough up the phlegm.
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 drugs used to treat emphysema and chronic bronchitis can also increase your heart rate. Use cold remedies with caution, especially if you have high blood pressure or other heart issues in addition to COPD. Again, ask your doctor about medications for cold symptoms.
Patients who use supplemental oxygen should ensure their equipment is kept hygienically clean, especially when friends/family/carers come round who may have a cold or be the carrier of the cold virus. Some patients feel safer using their mask rather than their nasal cannula as it covers their nose and mouth to reduce the chance of breathing in germs. If you are trying to keep active then some use their masks and portable concentrators when going outside or when among crowds, not only to support breathing function but to protect from potential viral germs. Some patients also find that if they do feel cold symptoms coming on then using oxygen when they sleep overnight and using it more during the day helps prevent symptoms from worsening.
The best way to treat a cold is to prevent one, here are some general tips to help you avoid catching a cold:
• Wash your hands regularly.
• Avoid crowds during cold and flu season.
• Avoid cigarette smoke and air pollutants.
• Eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly.
• Stop smoking.
• Make sure you are using your inhalers correctly.