A lady coughing into a tissue.
While COPD and pneumonia have similar symptoms (such as coughing and shortness of breath) they should not be confused with one another.

COPD vs. Pneumonia

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and pneumonia have a lot in common, such as the fact that those who suffer tend to have an exceedingly challenging time breathing without proper treatment. However, both are treatable, and sufferers tend to feel better once they are prescribed the correct medication. When examining COPD vs. pneumonia, they do have similar symptoms, so how can you tell which one you are experiencing? Let’s find out.


While COPD is considered a disease, it is actually a group of diseases, and when they occur together, you are considered to have COPD. The two diseases that must occur concurrently are chronic bronchitis and emphysema.


Typically, symptoms of COPD do not occur until it has already progressed and caused considerable damage to the lungs. The common symptoms of COPD include:

  • Shortness of breath, often worsening with activity.
  • Chest tightness.
  • Wheezing.
  • A chronic cough that may produce sputum that is clear, white, yellow, or green.
  • Frequently occurring respiratory infections.
  • Swelling in the lower extremities.
  • Unintended weight loss.
  • Lack of energy.

Those with COPD are likely to have exacerbations of their symptoms, making it difficult to continue with normal day-to-day activities.


Treatment of COPD is a multifaceted approach; your healthcare provider will recommend several, if not all, of the below interventions:

  • Smoking cessation. This is the best way to prevent COPD from occurring; it can also prevent the worsening of damage to the lungs.
  • Inhalers. They can be prescribed by your healthcare provider; these devices deliver medication directly into the lungs. There are several types of inhalers, from short-acting to long-acting. They all have the same goal – to improve symptoms and quality of life.
  • Medication. These can also be prescribed. Mucolytic medications help to thin the mucus that worsens COPD symptoms. Theophylline is a prescription medication that is thought to reduce inflammation and relax the muscles that line the lungs. Steroids and antibiotics are prescribed on an as-needed basis, depending on the severity of symptoms and the presence of infection.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation. This is a program that teaches a variety of techniques, such as breathing exercises. Participants typically meet with a registered dietician, work with physical therapists, and respiratory therapists.
  • Oxygen therapy. This is typically prescribed once COPD reaches advanced stages.


Pneumonia is a lung infection that is caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi. It causes the alveoli (the air sacs) to fill with pus. It can affect one lung or both lungs concurrently.


Symptoms can range in severity, from a nuisance to severe disability. Common symptoms include:

  • Fever.
  • Productive cough with sputum that is green, yellow, or bloody.
  • Heavy sweating.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Bluish tint to the lips and fingernails.
  • Shortness of breath that worsens with activity.
  • Sharp chest pain that worsens with activity.
  • Chills.
  • Rapid pulse.
  • Rapid breathing.
  • Extreme fatigue.


Treatment is dependent on the source of infection. For example, viral pneumonia typically will get better on its own. A bacterial or fungal pneumonia is treated with antibiotics.

Most people can recover from pneumonia at home. However, some people require hospitalization to heal.

Other treatments that are used or prescribed include oxygen therapy, pain medication, fever-reducing medications, inhalers, rest, increasing fluid intake and cough-relief medications.

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The Similarities

As you can see, there are many similarities between COPD and pneumonia. Most of the similarities lie in their similar symptomology:

  • Productive cough.
  • Shortness of breath that worsens with activity.
  • Chest pain.
  • Fatigue.

There are also several similarities in treatments:

  • The use of inhalers.
  • The use of oxygen therapy.
  • Both may use medications to treat symptoms.

The Differences

The largest difference between COPD and pneumonia is in the pathophysiology; COPD is a chronic lung disease caused by conditions that cause damage to the lungs, whereas pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that typically gets better with time.

In addition, COPD is often caused by smoking. People who smoke are also more likely to get pneumonia, but there are many causes of pneumonia.

The Relationship Between COPD and Pneumonia

Though these two medical conditions are quite different, having COPD increases your likelihood of developing pneumonia. Why?

Because the diseases that causes COPD causes damage to the lungs, and the respiratory system becomes weaker. This increases your vulnerability for developing COPD. In addition, people with COPD have an impaired immune system and weakened airways, increasing the likelihood of dying from pneumonia compared to your counterparts.

If you have COPD, you can reduce your risk of developing pneumonia by:

  • Washing hands thoroughly and often.
  • Getting vaccinations that prevent pneumonia, whooping cough and influenza.
  • Quitting smoking.
  • Treating COPD with medications and tactics as prescribed by your healthcare provider.