young woman wearing mask

Disclaimer: At UPMC HealthBeat, we strive to provide the most up-to-date facts in our stories when we publish them. We also make updates to our content as information changes. However, education about COVID-19 can shift quickly based on new data, emerging variants, or other factors. The information in this story was accurate as of its publish date. We also encourage you to visit other reliable websites for updated information, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and your state and local governments. 

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the country, people with underlying respiratory diseases need to take extra precautions. While the virus affects those over age 60 more severely, people of all ages with underlying medical conditions also are at risk. That’s why it’s important for people with a respiratory illness to continue their medical care.

COVID-19 and Chronic Respiratory Illness

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that mainly targets the lungs, causing inflammation and pneumonia. Having lungs already weakened by a chronic conditions doesn’t mean you’re more likely to get the virus. But you are at higher risk for developing severe complications from COVID-19.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), patients with respiratory illnesses are at a greater risk of developing a severe illness from COVID-19. Most at risk are patients diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, and those who had a lung transplant. People with asthma, cystic fibrosis, or pulmonary fibrosis also are at risk.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include coughing, trouble breathing, fever, fatigue, and headache, among others. You can manage many of these symptoms at home with help from your doctor. Your doctor also can recommend when you should get emergency care.

If more severe complications arise, seek emergency care immediately. You might need hospitalization (possibly in the ICU) and even ventilator support

Complications include pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome — a potentially fatal condition that causes fluid to build up in the lungs.

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How to Protect Yourself

To stay safe and reduce your risk of infection, follow guidance from state and national public health experts. Stay home when possible and avoid large crowds. When you do leave your home, wear a facemask and maintain at least six feet between you and others. Remember to wash your hands when you return home. Consider having groceries and other essentials delivered to your home.

People with respiratory diseases that cause trouble breathing may find it more difficult to breathe while wearing a mask. Cloth masks may be a better option because they fit looser and tend to be more breathable than surgical or N95 masks. Even people with lung disease are able to safely wear a mask. If you think you are unable to wear a mask, talk to your doctor.

Disinfect high-touch surfaces at home like countertops and doorknobs. If you have asthma, be careful which cleaners you use to ensure they don’t trigger an attack. Also, be sure not to mix cleaners as combining certain chemicals can release fumes that can cause severe lung damage.

Continue to take your prescribed medicines and keep a 30-day supply on hand. This way you’ll always be prepared to stick with your treatment plan. The immune-suppressing medicines you take after a lung transplant can increase your risk of infection, but they are essential to reduce the risk of rejection.

The Importance of Not Delaying Your Care

Despite fears of infection, it’s important to keep up with your medical care. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, some people needed to avoid the hospital for non-essential care. But delaying care for too long can cause your condition to worsen and can lead to permanent lung damage.

If you’ve delayed going to the doctor, now is the time to make an appointment. Keeping your doctor updated on your symptoms, medicine refills or changes, and your condition will help you stay as healthy as possible. It’s vital that you do not delay or cancel necessary or even routine testing. For example, people who have had a lung transplant need regular pulmonary lung function tests. Some people need annual lung cancer screenings. Delaying these tests can endanger your health.

People with shortness of breath, symptoms of COVID-19, or a cough should call their doctor immediately.

Virtual Visits

Telemedicine enables you to meet with your doctor without leaving home. This allows you to stay current with your care plan and prevent negative effects from your lung disease or respiratory illness.

The UPMC Comprehensive Lung Center offers virtual visits for many patients. But you may need go to a clinic or a doctor’s office for procedures, tests, and certain exams.

Follow-up visits, medicine check-ins, and discussions about new symptoms can be done by phone or video. Virtual visits reduce the number of people in waiting rooms, allowing for more distancing when you do need to come in person.

How UPMC Keeps You Safe

In addition to offering virtual visits, UPMC has many protocols in place to keep you safe when you come to our facilities.

Routine cleaning and disinfecting

High-touch areas in the hospitals, clinics, and appointment rooms routinely undergo cleaning. Exam rooms are cleaned after each patient visit, and high-traffic areas undergo regular cleaning with
hospital-grade disinfectants.

Screening visitors

All patients and essential visitors undergo a thorough screening before coming through the doors of any UPMC facility. This includes checking your temperature and asking you a few questions about symptoms and possible exposure. If you have a fever, you may need to delay your visit and see your primary care doctor.

Universal facemask policy

All doctors, staff, patients, and visitors must wear a facemask or cloth face covering in any UPMC facility. Some people with respiratory diseases may have difficulty breathing with a facemask. We make some exceptions in those cases, according to guidance from the CDC. Talk to your doctor if you feel you cannot wear a mask for your appointment.

Visitor limitations

Only visitors essential to your care can come with you into the facility. Friends and family should wait in the parking lot during your appointment.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cloth Face Cover Guidance.

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.