Everything you need to know about COPD and the Coronavirus!

Published 7 Apr 2020 • Updated 15 Apr 2020 • By Camille Dauvergne

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (or COPD) is a chronic inflammatory disease of the bronchi that affects nearly 2 million people across the UK. In many cases, it is caused by smoking (or second-hand smoke).

Because COPD affects the lower airways, and because patients present on average 5 comorbidities (metabolic, muscular, cardiac, gastrointestinal, psychological, etc.), the risk of developing a serious form of COVID-19, which can manifest itselfs as severe acute respiratory failure, is higher for these patients than for the general population.

Philippe Poncet, President of the French COPD association 'France BPCO', allowed us to answer patients' questions! As he himself suffers from COPD, he is committed to defending the protection rights of these patients in the current public health situation.

Why is the risk of complications higher for COPD patients? How can you protect yourself? What about treatments? We explain everything!

Everything you need to know about COPD and the Coronavirus!

I have COPD, do I need to follow specific protective measures?

Of course, you should start by correctly following the general recommendations et strictly comply with the self-isolation measures and barrier gestures

Outings should be limited as much as possible and the following practices should be encouraged: teleconsultations, home delivery, working from home, etc. In the case that teleworking is not possible, you may qualify for Statutory Sick Pay. You can find information onf employment and financial support here.

In view of the current mask shortage, masks should be reserved, as a priority, to the medical staff and to the people directly in contact with patients suffering from COVID-19. The British Lung Foundation does not recommend that COPD patients use a facemask to protect themselves as there isn’t enough evidence yet to show how effective they are. Also, for people living with a lung condition wearing a facemask can make breathing more difficult.

Can I continue my physiotherapy during self-isolation?

Wherever possible, your essential COPD physiotherapy should continue, to avoid developing complications related to your chronic condition. The NHS, however, is asking everyone to access medical help remotely rather than in person, if they can. Talk to your GP or physical therapist to see what is the best solution for you. Make sure that you utilise the barrier gestures if you do visit your physiotherapist!

The British Lung Foundation recommends staying physically active to help cope with self-isolation and have created a series of exercise videos that can be done from home. 

I'm a smoker, or former smoker, am I more at risk?

Smoking causes damages your lungs, putting you at more risk of serious complications.  According to the British Lung Foundation, smoking is a serious risk factor, as people who smoke are five times more likely to get flu and twice as more likely to get pneumonia. Smoking can also lead to coughing, which favours the transmission of the coronavirus to those around you, especially in the case of an asymptomatic infection (infection without symptoms). For more information on the risks of infection and severe forms of COVID-19, see the World Health Organization's page on tabacco use and COVID-19.

According to Philippe Poncet, nearly 3 million French people, many of whom are smokers, are unaware that they suffer from COPD. In the UK, it is estimated that up to 6 million people are living undiagnosed. These people are all the more at risk because their condition has not been stabilised.

In case of COPD, former smokers or non-smokers are just as much at risk.

I'm on corticosteroids, should I stop my medication to avoid complications?

According to Philippe Poncet, treatment with inhaled and/or oral corticosteroids should in no case be interrupted without the advice of the pulmonologist or the treating physician, at the risk of worsening COPD without reducing the risk of coronavirus infection and complications.

It is important to differentiate between non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, voltaren, which scientists in other countries, such as France, believe may lower your immune defences and therefore promote a serious form of COVID-19, and corticosteroids such as cortisone. This is a steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, which should not be stopped if you are taking it as part of your

If you have any questions about your treatments, corticosteroids or other medications, it is recommended that you contact your doctor by telephone or tele-consultation.

I'm on oxygen therapy, is there a risk of shortages due to to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Mr Poncet confirms that at present, "all the necessary measures have been taken to ensure the safety of each patient and that necessary reserves are in place to avoid any break in the chain of care, including the supply of liquid oxygen, which could possibly be replaced over time by oxygen generators during the crisis. Associations are committed to communicating with their patients in order to provide the best possible support during the epidemic".

How can COPD symptoms be differentiated from those of COVID-19? What should I do if I have symptoms (cough, fever, difficulty breathing, etc.)?

The first symptom that should warn you is fever! If it is accompanied by shortness of breath that is significantly worse than usual and a dry cough, it may be COVID-19. You may also experience specific symptoms such as aches and pains or a sudden loss of smell (and taste).

How do I measure the progress of my shortness of breath? According to Poncet, "you have to take your time, check your device and the difference between your activities that day and the day before to try to gauge the difference. An oximeter can be useful here." 

An isolated dry cough is not sufficient to suggest COVID-19. However, sudden shortness of breath or usual exaggerated symptoms associated with fever are reasons to call for emergency medical attention. 

In the case of all three symtoms: sudden dry cough + fever + differentiated shortness of breath, call your doctor, 111, or  if you can't get a response, 999 immediately

As a rule, in the event of suggestive symptoms: do not go to A&E or to your GP!

The NHS and other health authorities across the UK have set up online platforms or tools to help patients describe their symptoms to a healthcare professional or call centre in a concise manner. To get help or advice about your coronavirus symptoms, contact:

I have emphysema, is that an added danger?

According to Professor James Chalmers, an infectious disease expert from the European Respiratory Society (ERS) and Professor Leo Heunks, an intensive care specialist, patients with emphysema are among those considered to be at higher risk of complications from COVID-19. This is because emphysema is a destruction of the lung which, in some cases, can lead to respiratory failure when it is advanced. If you have respiratory failure, then in this case there is an additional risk of infection. But if you have emphysema without respiratory failure then there is no additional risk compared to COPD without emphysema.

I'm living with a relative with COVID-19, how can I protect myself?

In this case, you should:

  • Stay at home and isolate yourself from the infected person (if possible in separate rooms)
  • Implement the barrier gestures
  • Monitor your temperature twice a day and watch for the aforementioned symptoms.

Are there any respiratory after-effects after a recovery from COVID-19?

Patients who have had acute respiratory distress syndrome in ICU may have long-term after-effects, such as microscopic damage to the lungs. These deteriorations may decrease lung function and thus increase shortness of breath.

According to Philippe Poncet, "the after-effects of COVID-19 could lead to a massive influx of new COPD patients".

However, most cases of COVID-19 are benign, and although there is still little evidence of the consequences of the infection, these patients are unlikely to experience any after-effects. This data will become better known in the coming months. 

How can I keep up-to-date with COPD news?

  • The British Lung Foundation: The only UK charity looking after the nation's lungs, the BLF aims to prevent lung disease by campaigning for positive change in the UK's lung health and by raising awareness about lung disease, the dangers that cause it, and how to look after your lungs.
  • The European Lung Foundation: The European Lung Foundation (ELF) was founded by the European Respiratory Society (ERS) in 2000 with the aim of bringing together patients and the public with respiratory professionals to positively influence lung health.
  • EURORDIS - Rare Diseases Europe: EURORDIS is a non-governmental patient-driven alliance of patient organisations representing 905 rare disease patient organisations in 72 countries. It acts as the voice of 30 million people affected by rare diseases throughout Europe. EURORDIS' mission is to build a strong pan-European community of patient organisations and people living with rare diseases, to be their voice at the European level.
  • The American Lung Association: Though it may be across the pond, the American Lung Association can be a good resource for information relating to COPD. It is the leading American organisation working to save lives by improving lung health and prevent lung disease through education, advocacy, and research.

Was this article useful to you? Do you have any other tips to share with the community? 

Take care and stay home!

1 comment

robjmckinney • Ambassador
on 17/04/2020

If you are a vulnerable person in 12 week isolation do register with the government. You can get access to food parcels, priority with online shopping and help getting your medicines. There is also help within you community look online to what is on offer locally. Stay safe!

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