Copd Complications Health Risk

Health complications can develop as COPD damages the lungs and impairs breathing ability. Some, such as respiratory distress and an increased risk of lung infection, are complications most people would expect from lung disease. Others, such as heart disease and sleep disorders, are health concerns that at first glance seem to have little to do with the lungs.

Respiratory Insufficiency

Obstructive Lung DiseasesRespiratory insufficiency is perhaps the most obvious health complication associated with COPD. As breathing becomes increasingly difficult, the body loses the ability to balance the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. Other health concerns, such as heart disease, can occur if too little oxygen is available in the blood. Respiratory insufficiency may require permanently breathing through an oxygen mask.

Heart Disease

As the lungs’ ability to transport oxygen drops, COPD places increasing strain on the heart. Heart disease may occur if low oxygen levels develop in the blood. High blood pressure develops in the blood vessels between the heart and the lungs due to these low oxygen levels, making the heart work harder to pump blood. The strain ultimately leads to heart disease and heart attacks.

Sleep Disorders

COPD sufferers experience more sleep-related health problems than the average person. Sleep disorders, such as insomnia or nightmares, and chronic fatigue may develop. Why COPD causes sleep disorders is unclear. Several possible reasons have been suggested, including the possibility that breathing difficulties and a decrease in lung function disrupt sleep. Side effects of COPD medications may also be to blame for some sleep disorders.

More information on sleep and health concerns can be found at About Sleep Disorders.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is not a COPD health complication. However, the majority of COPD patients are long-term smokers, so are at higher risk of lung cancer. Follow the link for more Information on Lung Cancer.

Pneumonia and Infections

COPD places great strain on the lungs, increasing the possibility of infections and pneumonia. Infections of the lungs are a serious health risk for COPD patients, and should receive immediate medical attention.


Pneumothorax is a health condition that can occur due to COPD. A hole develops in the lung sac of one of the lungs, and air escapes into the area between the chest wall and the lungs. This causes the collapse of the affected lung and causes respiratory distress. Emergency medical treatment is required.


Polycythemia is an imbalance in blood cells caused by low oxygen levels in the bloodstream. As the lungs ability to acquire oxygen lowers, the body produces more oxygen-carrying red blood cells in an attempt to better use the available oxygen. While this helps initially, excess amounts of red blood cells eventually clog small blood vessels.

COPD Stages

  • Stage 1: Lungs function at 50 percent of normal capacity or higher. Health is not greatly impaired.
  • Stage 2: Lungs function at 35 to 49 percent normal capacity. Health is significantly impacted.
  • Stage 3: Lungs function at less than 35 percent. Health is severely affected.


Journal of the American Medical Association. (2003). Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Retrieved November 17, 2003, from MD