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How can a viral infection affect someone with COPD?

We interact with a lot of people who suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) which is an umbrella term for diseases such as emphysema (weakened and ruptured alveoli) and chronic bronchitis, where the bronchi stay inflamed and over-produce mucus, causing constant breathing challenges. 

With COPD, the alveoli (air sacs) become less efficient at bringing oxygen into the body and sending carbon dioxide out.  Inflammation of the bronchi in COPD can be permanent, compared with asthma, where it is temporary.

Darcy was diagnosed with COPD several years ago and this was one of the key drivers for us to form Zestt and develop lung health and immunity products.  One of the key challenges for Darcy, and others who have to manage an inflammatory respiratory disease, is the constant threat of infection, with bacteria or viruses, during the winter months.  What can be a common cold for someone without a respiratory disease, can turn into severe illness, hospitalisation and secondary infections for someone with a respiratory disease.  Darcy has had several pneumonia infections and on one occasion had to be hospitalised.  He describes the symptoms as “a distinct feeling of drowning” something he “wouldn’t recommend.”    

What happens when someone with COPD is infected with a virus?

In a half to two thirds of COPD exacerbations, a viral infection is the cause.  When the virus infects a person with COPD, a bunch of complex interactions occurs between the host’s individual microbiome (bacteria and viruses in a person’s body) and environmental influences.  The combination of these factors can increase the inflammatory burden in the lower airways, overwhelming the protective anti-inflammatory defence mechanisms, leading to tissue damage.

A respiratory viral infection targets the epithelial cells of the lungs, which can lead to desquamation (shedding or peeling of that layer of cells), microvascular dilatation (swelling of micro blood vessels), edema (fluid-swelling), and inflammatory cell infiltrate (the body’s production of inflammatory molecules to fight infection).

These changes can be “dysregulated” or greater in people with COPD which can make the lower airways more vulnerable to a secondary bacterial infection, because the changes can interfere with mucus clearance and reduce bacterial clearance.

Still a lot to learn

There is relatively little is known around the details of how viruses cause exacerbation of the symptoms of COPD, and there is still intensive research underway to try and find solutions. The main area of focus is trying to elucidate the cellular and molecular mechanisms of respiratory viral infection in COPD – what is going on at a the granular level, so pharmaceuticals might be developed to alter the activation of various biochemical pathway/s.

You can read more here, here and here

What can a person with COPD do now?

It is critical that anyone with COPD do all that they can to improve their innate immunity and increase their lung capacity and we have written previous blogs about this (read more here, here and here).

Avoidance of infection is also critical, so staying away from others who display symptoms of colds or flus and using good hygienic protection measures when out in public (washing hands, mask wearing etc).

Don’t muck around

If someone with COPD develops a viral infection, it is important that they seek medical attention promptly. Healthcare professionals may prescribe antiviral medications, provide symptomatic relief, and closely monitor the individual's respiratory status to prevent complications and optimise recovery – in other words, don’t muck around, take action, even a relatively minor viral infection can lead to a damaging secondary infection.

Please contact Anna anna@zesttwellness.com 027 4861418 or Darcy at darcy@zesttwellness.com 0275992255 at anytime if you have any comments, questions or thoughts and please seek medical advice if you have any concerns about COPD or other respiratory diseases.

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