Beyond the Lungs: How COPD affects the body

Posted on April 04, 2022   |   

This post was authored by Christina Hunt, BS, RRT.

A lot of time is spent by educators teaching others about how COPD affects the lungs. We know that COPD can cause breathing problems for a couple of reasons. The airways can be constantly swollen which causes air moving from the lungs to be blocked or trapped. Or maybe the air sacs (alveoli) have lost their ability to completely release the air they hold which can also trap air in the lungs. Frequent symptoms can include feeling short of breath, cough, mucus (sputum) production, and wheezing. However, it is important to learn how COPD may affect the rest of the body beyond the lungs. The medical community refers to how the whole body responds to a condition as "systemic." By knowing this information, you can take a proactive approach to monitoring your body and explore issues as they may arise.


Unplanned weight loss affects about 50% of people with COPD.1 The main type of tissue that is lost in people with COPD is muscle with fat being second.1 Why is this? When you have COPD, you use more energy to breathe. Because people with COPD use more energy to breathe, they burn more calories at rest than those with healthy lungs. Also, the body uses calories to fight flare-ups that occur.2 For both of these reasons, this can cause unplanned weight loss in those with COPD. Making sure you are eating the right foods can help you to have energy, fight infection, and feel your best.

Heart and blood vessels

Most people are aware that in the body, the heart and lungs work closely together. Because this relationship is so "close," the heart and blood vessels can be affected when someone has COPD. People who have COPD are at two to three times the risk of having cardiovascular disease.1 "Cardiovascular disease," means to have problems with the heart and blood vessels. People with COPD should work closely with their health care team to monitor their heart function.

Muscle changes

As mentioned before, the amount of muscle in the body can be affected by COPD. Because COPD can cause those that have it to have a lack of energy, they may not feel up to exercising. However, low activity can cause "muscle wasting," and make it harder to do daily activities.3 (Even to breathe!) Daily activity (along with a healthy diet) can help those with COPD maintain their strength, give you more energy, and feel better overall.

Weakening of bones

Osteoporosis (a disease that causes bones to become weak and prone to breaking) can be common in people with COPD. This may happen due to people with COPD having low body weight, a history of smoking, low vitamin D levels, steroid use, and inactivity.4 Often weakening of the bones isn't discovered until the first injury. It is recommended that people with COPD should be routinely checked for evidence of low vitamin D and screened for osteoporosis.

Worry and Mood changes

Feelings of worry and depression are common in people who have COPD. If these feelings are not addressed, they could lead to further issues with COPD like flare-ups, increased hospital stays, and difficulty doing daily activities.5 Knowing feelings of worry and sadness are common, it is recommended that people with COPD talk to their health care team if these feelings appear.

Although it may seem that COPD can cause issues throughout the body, monitoring and staying connected to your health care team can go a long way toward prevention. If you have COPD, talk to your health care provider about how you can take further steps to avoid problems associated with your condition. A good health and wellness plan could be the first place to start.


  1. Agusti AG. Systemic effects of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Proc Am Thorac Soc. 2005;2(4):367-372. Doi:10.1513/pats.200504-26SR
  2. Itoh M, Tsuji T, Nemoto K, Nakamura H, Aoshiba K. Undernutrition in patients with COPD and its treatment. Nutrients. 2013;5(4):1316-1335. Published 2013 Apr 18. doi:10.3390/nu5041316
  3. Wüst RC, Degens H. Factors contributing to muscle wasting and dysfunction in COPD patients. Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2007;2(3):289-300.
  4. Biskobing DM. COPD and osteoporosis. Chest. 2002;121(2):609-620. doi:10.1378/chest.121.2.609
  5. Pumar MI, Gray CR, Walsh JR, Yang IA, Rolls TA, Ward DL. Anxiety and depression-Important psychological comorbidities of COPD. J Thorac Dis. 2014;6(11):1615-1631. doi:10.3978/j.issn.2072-1439.2014.09.28


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  • Great information Christina. Thanks for posting this
  • Thank you, Christina for this great article - for helping us understand how COPD can sometimes be a whole-body condition, reminding us to pay attention to our overall health and wellness!
  • Thanks for this important article. I have always been underweight, so I need to be careful not to go even lower. Last year when I saw a hematologist, he pointed put that I had lost some muscle mass in my hands. News to me! Now I sometimes use a gripper exerciser to build up strength.
  • Great article! Some COPD patients might not realize how important these things are. Thanks for explaining and clarifying these very important points.
  • another great article thank you!!

  • Thank you for this great article. I have spent some time researching the maladys associated with COPD.
  • Thank you for this article! My doctors and I have been searching in the wrong directions for my weight and muscle loss. Yes, both are due to decreased activity and not eating enough, but now I know WHY! I never would have guessed that my COPD could be to blame.
  • Thank you for this. I forwarded it to my PCP and her staff -- have had some apparent non-recognition that my 'unexplained weight loss' might be due to my COPD. An excellent article and I always appreciate your listing the references.

    • Thank you for this great article. Yes, a good treatment and wellness plan is a great place to start. We must believe that we do have some control over our disease status.
  • Thank you for this informative article Christina. As I was reading, I was reminded of the importance of proper nutrition, and how heat sometimes impacts our hunger levels. I know personally when it gets really hot and humid, I tend to not feel as hungry ( except for maybe craving ice cream or a nice juicy watermelon). You make a really good point in saying, "When you have COPD, you use more energy to breathe. Because people with COPD use more energy to breathe, they burn more calories at rest than those with healthy lungs" which is a great reminder to make sure that you are eating and getting enough calories in, even if you are feeling less hungry.