Coronavirus: What to be aware of if you have COPD

Photo of an older man being examined by a doctor

The severity of COVID-19 mainly depends on people’s age and whether they already have other medical conditions. The symptoms are often more severe in people who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (). Preventing an is especially important for them. They should continue to take their medication as usual.

Like COVID-19, (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a condition that affects the airways. It causes permanent damage to the lungs and narrows the airways (). People who have advanced get out of breath very easily. Oxygen therapy or even artificial ventilation may be needed.

Why does COPD increase the risk of complications?

In , less oxygen enters the bloodstream. This happens in COVID-19 too, if the attacks the lungs. So if people who have are infected with COVID-19, there is a great risk that they will have trouble breathing and will need to be artificially ventilated. People with are also more prone to pneumonia or lung failure.

Research has shown that people who have die of COVID-19 more often than people who don’t have . Studies found that about 8 out of 100 people with who also had COVID-19 died. This figure only gives us a rough idea, though, because most of these studies are from China, where the care of patients differs from that in Germany and other European countries, for instance. It is not clear whether people who have are also more likely to get COVID-19.

Important: Carry on using medication!

It is very important to continue using medication like inhalers to widen the airways (bronchodilators). They help to prevent acute breathing difficulties, among other things. People who don't take their medication and then become infected with COVID-19 may risk having even worse breathing problems.

Some people who have use a steroid inhaler every day. They should continue doing that too. A few reports have claimed that steroid inhalers can weaken the immune system so much that they increase the risk of becoming very ill if you get COVID-19. But there's no reason to believe that this is true because steroid inhalers hardly affect the in the rest of the body.

Although studies suggest that steroid inhalers can generally increase the risk of a little in people who have , it's not clear whether this is also true for due to a COVID-19 .

Based on current research, the advantages of steroids outweigh their possible side effects. So people can even take steroid tablets, especially because these tablets are usually only taken for a short time in – to treat acute breathing problems.

It's important to have a big enough supply of medications at home in case you need to go into quarantine due to a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19.

What if you think you might have COVID-19?

The symptoms of and COVID-19 are sometimes similar. Both illnesses can cause coughing and shortness of breath. But other typical symptoms of COVID-19, such as a fever and an altered sense of taste or smell, are not (or only rarely) caused by . If you have typical COVID-19 symptoms, it can be a good idea to be tested for it. You can discuss this option at a test site or with your doctor.

How can you avoid infection?

It is understandable that people who have are afraid of being infected with the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) due to the risk of getting very ill. But the risk of is very small, particularly in areas with low numbers of infected people. So it's usually still possible to continue going about your normal daily life if you follow the recommended safety precautions. These include keeping enough distance from others, practicing good hygiene, and avoiding groups of people. It's important to keep your risk of as low as possible when spending time with children and grandchildren, too.

But there might be situations where you have to be especially careful – for instance in places where a group of people are together in a small space, or if you come into contact with people who you don't know and who may even have symptoms.

Institutions like nursing homes have special safety measures in place to minimize the risk of .

Do you have to wear a mask if you have COPD?

In many countries, people have to wear masks in public places like shops or on public transport. A lot of people who have are okay with that, but some feel uncomfortable wearing a mask. They're afraid that it will make it harder for them to breathe. But it's not clear whether wearing a mask can actually lead to breathing difficulties in people with . There's not enough good scientific research in this area, and there are also no official recommendations for people who have .

If you find it very difficult to wear a mask, it's best to talk to your doctor – for instance, about trying out a different type of mask or whether you could wear a face shield instead. Only for certain medical problems can doctors issue a medical certificate saying that you don't need to wear a mask.

Alqahtani JS, Oyelade T, Aldhahir AM, Alghamdi SM, Almehmadi M, Alqahtani AS et al. Prevalence, Severity and Mortality associated with COPD and Smoking in patients with COVID-19: A Rapid Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. PLoS One 2020; 15(5): e0233147.

Banerjee A, Pasea L, Harris S, Gonzalez-Izquierdo A, Torralbo A, Shallcross L et al. Estimating excess 1- year mortality from COVID-19 according to underlying conditions and age in England: a rapid analysis using NHS health records in 3.8 million adults. May 22, 2020.

Bauer T, Rabe KF, Taube C, Joest M. Risikoabschätzung bei Patienten mit chronischen Atemwegs- und Lungenerkrankungen im Rahmen der SARS-CoV-2-Pandemie. Stellungnahme der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Pneumologie und Beatmungsmedizin (DGP) mit Unterstützung des Bundesverbands der Pneumologen, Schlaf- und Beatmungsmediziner (BdP). May 27, 2020.

Bellou V, Tzoulaki I, Evangelou E, Belbasis L. Risk factors for adverse clinical outcomes in patients with COVID-19: A systematic review and meta-analysis. May 19, 2020.

Halpin DM, Singh D, Hadfield RM. Inhaled corticosteroids and COVID-19: a systematic review and clinical perspective. Eur Respir J 2020; 55(5): 2001009.

Hasan SS, Capstick T, Razi Zaidi ST, Kow CS, Merchant HA. Use of corticosteroids in asthma and COPD patients with or without COVID-19. Respir Med 2020 [Epub ahead of print]; 170: 106045.

Jain V, Yuan JM. Predictive symptoms and comorbidities for severe COVID-19 and intensive care unit admission: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Public Health 2020 [Epub ahead of print]: 1-14.

Parohan M, Yaghoubi S, Seraji A, Javanbakht MH, Sarraf P, Djalali M. Risk factors for mortality in patients with Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infection: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Aging Male 2020 [Epub ahead of print]: 1-9.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

Comment on this page

What would you like to share with us?

We welcome any feedback and ideas. We will review, but not publish, your ratings and comments. Your information will of course be treated confidentially. Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required fields.

Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Created on August 13, 2020
Next planned update: 2023


Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

How we keep you informed

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter or newsfeed. You can find all of our films online on YouTube.