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Learning About COPD and Upper Respiratory Infections

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What are upper respiratory infections?

An upper respiratory infection, also called a URI, is an infection of the nose, sinuses, or throat. Viruses or bacteria can cause URIs. Colds, the flu, and sinusitis are examples of URIs. These infections are spread by coughs, sneezes, and close contact.

How do these infections affect COPD?

Colds, the influenza (flu), and other upper respiratory infections can make COPD symptoms worse. These symptoms include having too much mucus in your lungs, coughing, and being short of breath.

What can you do to manage most infections at home?

  • Do not smoke. Avoid second-hand smoke.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). Read and follow all instructions on the label.
  • Be careful when taking over-the-counter cold or flu medicines and Tylenol at the same time. Many of these medicines have acetaminophen, which is Tylenol. Read the labels to make sure that you are not taking more than the recommended dose. Too much acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be harmful.
  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • Ask your doctor about cough medicines and decongestants. Some doctors recommend these medicines, while others feel that they do not help.
  • Learn breathing techniques for COPD, such as breathing through pursed lips. These techniques can help you breathe easier.

What can you do to prevent these infections?

Stay healthy

  • If you must be around people with colds or influenza (flu), wash your hands often.
  • Do not smoke. This is the most important step you can take to prevent more damage to your lungs. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Avoid second-hand smoke and air pollution. Try to stay inside with your windows closed when air pollution is bad.

Exercise and eat well

  • If your doctor recommends it, get more exercise. Walking is a good choice. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk every day. Try for at least 2½ hours a week.
  • Try to eat a variety of healthy foods. This gives your body energy and helps your body fight infection.
  • Get plenty of rest and sleep.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

Go to

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