Can Viruses Cause COPD?

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Can't Stop Coughing?

When you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), colds and the flu can make you very sick. Now, scientists are starting to believe that viruses may play a role in how chronic lung diseases like COPD develop in the first place. Though more research is needed to understand the link, you can take steps to keep your lungs healthy at any stage.

Long-Term Harms of Short-Term Infections

COPD slowly damages your lungs over time. Doctors have known for a while that if you had frequent colds or bouts of the flu as a child, your lung function may worsen and you may have more breathing problems as an adult. If you have COPD and catch these illnesses, your symptoms often worsen quickly.

The new research goes a step further and links short-term infections to the development of COPD. Scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis studied the lungs of people undergoing transplants because of COPD. They wanted to see how their tissues differed from those of healthy people.

In most cases, your immune system springs into action to fight viruses and then retreats after eliminating the threat. But the researchers found evidence that in people with COPD, inflammation after an infection never quite dies down. Certain cells that produce an inflammatory chemical, known as interleukin-13, linger. When a person smokes or is exposed to another risk factor, these cells can be reactivated. They then increase mucus production and cause the type of lung damage that’s typical of COPD.

Smoking: Still the Biggest Threat

Although viruses may prime your body for more serious illness, smoking remains the most significant cause of COPD. In fact, nearly all cases of COPD develop in smokers, although not all smokers develop COPD.

If you don’t smoke, don’t start. But it’s never too late to quit. Even if you already have COPD, kicking the habit will slow the rate at which damage to your lungs occurs.

Take Steps to Stay Healthy

Meanwhile, avoiding infections can help you breathe easier if you have COPD. Talk with your doctor about getting the flu and pneumonia shots to prevent these infections. Almost everyone should get a new flu shot each fall to protect against that season’s strains of flu. Further protect your lungs by:

  • Steering clear of sick people when you can. Stay home yourself when you’re under the weather.

  • Washing your hands frequently. When you don’t have soap and water on hand, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel.

  • Calling your health care provider right away if you develop symptoms of the flu. These include more coughing than normal, a fever, or tightness in your chest. Your health care provider may prescribe antiviral medications to help you feel better and prevent COPD flare-ups.

Scientists continue to study how COPD develops, in the hope of finding new treatments and, eventually, a cure. In the meantime, working closely with your health care provider can help you control flare-ups and breathe easier.

Key Takeaways

  • Some scientists believe that viruses may play a role in how COPD develops.

  • Although viruses may prime your body for more serious illness, smoking remains the biggest cause of COPD. 

  • If you have COPD, take steps to avoid infections such as the flu.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Oct 20

  1. What is COPD? National Institutes of Health. July 31, 2013. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/copd/

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