Is COPD Contagious? Everything You Should Know.

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Is COPD Contagious? Everything You Should Know.
Is COPD Contagious?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a serious respiratory condition that affects millions of people worldwide. As a progressive disease that makes breathing increasingly difficult, COPD can have a serious impact on quality of life. Is COPD contagious? Despite how serious it is, no–COPD isn’t contagious. However, secondary infections that can develop might be contagious. 

Understanding the nature of COPD and what causes it is helpful for both patients and their loved ones, as it can help them better manage the condition and make informed decisions about their health. This article will take a deep dive into the disease and everything you need to know.

What Is COPD? 

COPD is an umbrella term that covers two main conditions: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. These conditions can occur together and cause persistent respiratory symptoms like difficulty breathing, coughing, and wheezing. The World Health Organization says Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is the third leading cause of death worldwide, making it a serious public health issue across the globe.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is a disease marked by long-term inflammation of the bronchi (the airways in the lungs). This ongoing inflammation leads to increased mucus production and a persistent cough. People with chronic bronchitis are sometimes called the nickname “blue bloater” because of bluish discoloration of the skin and lips from lower oxygen in the blood.


On the other hand, emphysema involves damage to the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs where oxygen and carbon dioxide gas exchange takes place. As the alveoli become damaged, the lungs lose their elasticity, making it harder for the individual to breathe. People with emphysema generally don't produce excess mucus like those with chronic bronchitis.

How Common Is COPD?

Nearly 14.2 million Americans suffer with COPD, with more women dying from the condition compared to men. That's around 6% of adults in the United States. Worldwide, it's estimated that by 2050, 600 million adults will be diagnosed with COPD, a whopping 23% increase from 2020.

Causes and Risk Factors

Smoking: The Primary Cause

Smoking is the primary cause of COPD, accounting for about 80% of all cases. The harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke irritate and inflame the lungs, leading to the development of chronic bronchitis and emphysema over time. The risk of developing COPD increases with the number of cigarettes smoked and the duration of smoking.

Healthcare professionals calculate this number in "pack years". You can calculate pack years with this equation:

Number of packs smoked per day x Number of years smoked

Example: 1.5 packs/day x 25 years = 37.5 pack year smoking history

While it isn't a foolproof way to determine health outcomes, there is a correlation with COPD, lung cancer, and heart disease the higher the number is.

Quitting smoking at any stage can slow the progression of the disease and improve overall health.

Other Lung Irritants

In addition to smoking, exposure to other lung irritants can also contribute to the development of COPD. Secondhand smoke, air pollution, and chemical fumes from the environment or workplace can all cause damage to the lungs. People who work in industries like mining, construction, and manufacturing may be at a higher risk of developing COPD because of exposure to dust, fumes, and other airborne particles.

Genetic Factors

Genetic factors can also play a role in the development of COPD. Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD) is a rare genetic disorder that affects the lungs and liver. People with AATD have low levels of a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin, which helps protect the lungs from damage. Without enough of this protein, the lungs are more susceptible to damage from irritants like cigarette smoke, leading to an increased risk of developing COPD.

It's not known why one person might smoke for decades and develop severe COPD while someone else might only have mild sporadic lung symptoms. Genetics are thought to play a role in how the disease affects one person vs. another.

Age and Asthma

Age is another significant risk factor for COPD. The disease is most commonly diagnosed in people over the age of 40, as the lungs naturally lose some of their elasticity and function as we age. Additionally, having asthma can increase the risk of COPD, especially if the asthma is not well-controlled or if the person smokes.

Is COPD Contagious?

COPD Is Not Contagious

Despite the seriousness of COPD, it is important to understand that the disease itself is NOT contagious. You can't catch COPD from someone else, nor can you pass it on to others. COPD is a chronic condition that develops over time from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The main reason someone develops COPD is smoking.

How COPD Develops Over Time

COPD is a progressive disease, meaning that it will worsen over time. The damage caused to the lungs by smoking and other irritants happens gradually, leading to worse symptoms and lung function over the years. In the early stages of COPD, symptoms may be mild and may not significantly impact daily life. But, as the disease progresses, symptoms like shortness of breath, chronic cough, and fatigue can become more debilitating.

Risk of Transmitting Other Infections Through Coughing

While COPD itself is not contagious, people with the condition are more susceptible to respiratory infections like pneumonia and influenza. These infections can be more severe for people with COPD and can lead to exacerbations. Exacerbations are periods of worsening symptoms that might even require hospitalization.

If a person with COPD coughs or sneezes while they have another illness, they can spread these infections to others. Coughing into the arm and good hand hygiene helps prevents the spread of droplets and germs.

Symptoms of COPD

Here are some of the most common symptoms of COPD:

Chronic Cough

One of the most common symptoms of COPD is a chronic cough that lasts for several months or even years. This cough is often productive, meaning that it brings up mucus from the lungs. The mucus can be clear, white, yellow, or greenish in color. The cough may be worse in the morning or during physical activity.

Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath, also known as dyspnea, is another hallmark symptom of COPD. People with COPD may experience difficulty breathing, especially during exertion or exercise. As the disease progresses, shortness of breath can occur even during rest. This can make it challenging to perform everyday activities like walking, climbing stairs, or doing household chores.

Wheezing and Chest Tightness

COPD can cause wheezing, which is a high-pitched whistling sound that occurs when breathing (typically during exhalation). This is because of narrowing of the airways and the obstruction of airflow. Chest tightness is another common symptom, which can make it feel like there is a weight or pressure on the chest. These symptoms can be difficult to deal with during physical activity or when exposed to triggers like cold air or air pollution.

Frequent Respiratory Infections

COPDers are more susceptible to lung infections including pneumonia and influenza. These infections can cause a worsening of COPD symptoms and can lead to exacerbations. More respiratory infections can also contribute worsening symptoms over time.

How Is COPD Diagnosed?

There are several ways doctors assess patients for COPD including the following diagnostic tests:

Spirometry Test

The most common test used to diagnose COPD is spirometry – also known as a pulmonary function test. This test measures how much air a person can breathe out and how quickly they can do so. During the test, the patient takes a deep breath and then blows into a mouthpiece attached to a machine called a spirometer. The spirometer measures the amount of air exhaled and the speed of exhalation. A reduced ratio of forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) to forced vital capacity (FVC) indicates the presence of airflow obstruction, which is a key sign of COPD.

Chest X-ray and CT Scan

Imaging tests like chest X-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans can be used to assess the severity of COPD and to rule out other lung conditions. These tests can show emphysema, which is the destruction of the air sacs in the lungs, and other abnormalities like lung nodules or masses.

Arterial Blood Gas Analysis

An arterial blood gas (ABG) analysis is a test that measures the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. This test can help determine the severity of COPD and can guide treatment decisions. In people with severe COPD, the oxygen levels in the blood may be low, while the carbon dioxide levels may be high. Other numbers like the PH and HCO3 (bicarb) can show if a person has a chronic condition.

GOLD Classification (Stages 1-4)

The Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) has developed a classification system for COPD based on the severity of airflow obstruction. The stages range from mild (Stage 1) to very severe (Stage 4) and are determined by the results of spirometry testing. The GOLD classification can help guide treatment decisions and predict outcomes in people with COPD.

Is COPD Curable?

Unfortunately COPD is not curable, and is a result of years of smoking or exposure to damaging. Effective management of COPD and prevention of exacerbations is critical to maintaining a high quality of life.

Here are the top treatments and preventative measures to take if you have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease:

Quitting Smoking

The most important step in preventing and managing COPD is to quit smoking. Quitting smoking can slow the progression of the disease and improve symptoms – even if someone has been smoking for a long time. There are many resources available to help people quit smoking, including nicotine replacement therapy, prescription medications, and support groups.

Avoiding Lung Irritants

In addition to quitting smoking, it is important to avoid exposure to other lung irritants including secondhand smoke, air pollution, and occupational hazards. This may involve making lifestyle changes, but ultimately these changes are for the best.


People with COPD are at increased risk of respiratory infections, which can lead to exacerbations and worsening of symptoms. Vaccinations like the annual flu shot and the pneumococcal vaccine can help reduce the risk of these infections. The newer RSV vaccine is also recommended for adults over 60 years of age.

Bronchodilators and Corticosteroids

Bronchodilators are medications that help relax and open the airways, making it easier to breathe. There are two main types of bronchodilators: short-acting and long-acting. Short-acting bronchodilators (like albuterol) are used for quick relief of symptoms, while long-acting bronchodilators (arformoterol) are used for long-term control of symptoms. Corticosteroids are medications that help reduce inflammation in the airways. These meds are delivered via an inhaler or nebulizer.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation is a program of exercise, education, and support designed to help people with COPD manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life. The program typically includes exercise training, breathing techniques, and education about COPD and its management.

Oxygen Therapy

In severe cases of COPD, oxygen therapy may be necessary to help improve oxygen levels in the blood. Oxygen therapy involves using a portable oxygen tank or oxygen concentrator to deliver oxygen to the lungs through a nasal cannula or face mask.

Conclusion – Is COPD Contagious?

While COPD itself is not contagious, it is important to understand the causes, risk factors, and symptoms of the disease. Smoking is the primary cause of COPD, but exposure to other lung irritants, genetic factors, age, and asthma can also play a role in developing the condition.

It is important to remember that while COPD is not contagious, it is a serious condition that requires ongoing management and care. By taking preventive measures, seeking early diagnosis and treatment, and working closely with your healthcare provider, you can improve your symptoms and quality of life.

TruNeb™ Portable Nebulizer: Helping COPD Become More Manageable 

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