COPD: When Lungs Break, the Heart Often Follows

COPD: When Lungs Break, the Heart Often Follows

“To breathe is to live, and without breath there is no life.” The mantra is a basic tenet of yoga. Nothing is clearer for those who struggle to breathe.

If you suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), every breath can be a struggle. COPD is a serious health condition that narrows airways and makes it very difficult to breathe. Over time, it can get worse. Once there is damage to the lungs, it can’t be corrected.

Congestive heart failure is another very serious condition that is tied to COPD. The lungs and heart are very closely connected. When healthy, the lungs and heart work together to make sure every part of your body gets the oxygen it needs. When they don’t work together, your health can worsen quickly.

Low oxygen in the blood caused by COPD puts too much strain on the heart and makes heart failure worse. Excess fluid in the lungs caused by heart failure can make breathing even more difficult for someone with COPD.

Even more challenging, many people with COPD struggle with other health conditions too. Depression, sleep apnea, lung cancer, asthma and diabetes can be complications for COPD sufferers. Sometimes, a sudden illness, such as pneumonia or the flu, can quickly become serious for people with COPD. Your doctor will have to monitor all the medicines you take to make sure they don’t make your COPD or other health problems worse.

What Causes COPD?

Smoking is the main cause of COPD. If you quit smoking, it can help prevent complications and slow its progress.

If you’re a smoker and have a hard time breathing, talk with your doctor about  screening for COPD. Your care provider can also recommend programs and products to help you quit smoking.

Other causes of COPD include:

  • Indoor air pollution from cleaning products, burning wood in fireplaces and scented candles
  • Exposure to dust and chemical fumes in the workplace
  • Asthma
  • Frequent respiratory infections, especially during childhood
  • Heavy or long-term exposure to secondhand smoke and other air pollutants

Try to avoid these irritants. For example, if your home is being painted or sprayed for insects, have it done while you are away. Keep your windows closed and stay indoors when pollen counts or ozone rates are high.

Follow your treatments for COPD exactly as your doctor directs. It can help you breathe easier, stay more active and avoid severe symptoms. Ask your doctor about  getting flu and pneumonia shots. Both are major health risks for people who have COPD.

Call your doctor if your symptoms grow worse, or if you have any signs of an infection, such as a fever.

Seek emergency help if:

  • You have difficulty walking or talking
  • Your heart is beating very fast or irregularly
  • Your lips or fingernails become gray or blue
  • Your breathing is fast and hard, even when you use your medicine

If you have COPD, two of the most important things you can do are to quit smoking and get ongoing medical care. Being under the care of a doctor who can track your illness will set you up for success in managing your COPD. Quit smoking and find a PCP who can help to monitor your health.

Sources: Basics About COPD,   Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021; Heart Failure  Mayo Clinic, 2021.

Originally published 11/4/2016; Revised 2019, 2022

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