COVID-19 and COPD: Protecting yourself and others

Nov 16, 2020


We are frequently told that we should stay home and away from others if we are experiencing shortness of breath because that’s a symptom of COVID-19.

But what should you do if you always have shortness of breath?

Individuals who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, are short of breath every day. COPD refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems and includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD makes breathing difficult for the 16 million Americans who have the disease.

With COVID-19 still prevalent in the world, what do those with COPD need to do to stay safe? “COPD patients are not more at risk for getting COVID,” says Kam Atwal, MD, pulmonologist at Adventist Health Portland Lung Clinic. “But COPD patients may be at higher risk for more severe illness with COVID.”

It also depends on the severity of a person’s COPD. “Patients could experience more shortness of breath, worsening hypoxia leading to more chances of needing hospitalization, and potentially respiratory failure requiring admission to the intensive care unit,” says Dr. Atwal.

Dr. Atwal says the most important steps someone with COPD can take to protect their health is to:

  • Take their prescribed medications religiously
  • Immediately quit any habits they already have that hurt the lungs
  • Eat well and rest well
  • Be up to date with vaccinations such as those for the flu and pneumonia

In addition, the same precautions that have been promoted to the general public apply to people with COPD: wear a mask, follow distancing guidelines and avoid large gatherings of people in indoor locations.

Dr. Atwal also emphasizes that people with COPD should know their baseline symptoms so they are aware when any new symptoms arise that might need medical attention. If they notice any increasing shortness of breath that does not respond to the usual rescue medications, pulse oximeter readings (if they have one) trending lower than their usual readings, or a high fever, they should contact the doctor immediately.