Barrel Chest COPD – What is it and What Does it Mean?

COPD is a debilitating respiratory sickness that stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It is a chronic respiratory disease that causes inflammation in the lungs and obstructs airflow when breathing. COPD is caused by cigarette smoking and usually develops into emphysema as it progresses.

COPD damages the airways and sacs of the lungs through repeated inflammation and persistent coughing. This permanently changes the makeup of the lungs and airways, making it more difficult to breathe. People with COPD regularly feel like they are short of breath. When COPD gets to this stage, it is typically referred to as emphysema.

Emphysema is a type of COPD that is diagnosed by identifying the overinflation of the lungs due to shortness of breath. Emphysema causes the lungs to continually overfill with air because they feel like they are not getting enough air each time you inhale, causing respiratory distress.

When the lungs become overfilled with air for a lengthy duration, the chest will begin to expand to make room for the enlarged lungs. When the lungs deflate, the chest size remains the same, ultimately leading to a shape known as the barrel chest.

What is Barrel Chest COPD?

Barrel chest COPD physically describes the shape that the chest takes after the lungs become overfilled too many times due to COPD symptoms, including shortness of breath, difficulty inhaling, and irritation in the airways. When the lungs become overfilled regularly, they fail to deflate properly. This causes the ribs and chest to take a barrel-size shape known as barrel chest COPD.

Developing a barrel chest is an adverse effect of COPD. It is caused when COPD has developed into its advanced stage known as emphysema, a similar respiratory illness to COPD but with greater complications. Barrel chest COPD is identified as a round, bulging chest that protrudes and takes the shape of a barrel.

Barrel chest COPD is not a type of COPD rather than a physical description of COPD that has progressively worsened over time, typically appearing in the late stages of the disease, often associated with emphysema.

What Does it Mean to Have Barrel Chest COPD?

Having barrel chest COPD doesn’t mean that you have a different form of COPD. Instead, it means that your COPD has progressed to a stage where you can see the physical impacts that COPD can have on the body. Usually, at this stage, emphysema has been diagnosed, as emphysema is defined as COPD that has caused the air sacs in the lungs to overinflate over time.

The disadvantage to barrel chest COPD, aside from a physical bulging chest, is that it can make the symptoms of COPD appear worse. Because the chest stays expanded, it causes breathing to become less efficient, which results in shortness of breath. Essentially, you have to work twice as hard to fill your lungs when your chest has expanded and taken on a barrel shape.

Barrel chest doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of overinflating your lungs to develop barrel chest COPD. This is why it is found in the late stages of COPD and commonly present when diagnosing emphysema.

How Does Barrel Chest COPD Affect the Body?

Barrel chest COPD damages the lungs, which causes COPD patients to have difficulty breathing as time goes on. Barrel chest COPD causes damage to the body in a variety of ways.

The primary damage in the body occurs within the lungs themselves. With barrel chest COPD, the lungs are unable to expand as they once did. This causes them to become tight and stiff. The tighter the lungs are, the less easy it is to breathe, which causes you to feel short of breath.

When all of these forces combine, you feel that you have shortness of breath, causing your body to work harder than necessary to catch your breath. This vicious cycle is repeated and progressively gets worse over time. It is common to be diagnosed with emphysema at this time, especially if you have already been diagnosed as having COPD.

To put it simply, the more out-of-breath you feel, the more you will try to catch your breath; and the more you try to catch your breath, the more likely you are to overinflate your lungs, adding to the progression of barrel chest COPD.

A Barrel Chest Signifies Something More Severe

Barrel chest COPD is the external manifestation of what is happening on the inside of the body. If you or someone you know has a barrel chest, it is indicative of an underlying and more severe problem beneath the surface that should be checked out.

It’s extremely likely that by the time a barrel chest has appeared, the patient is anticipated to have emphysema. Emphysema should not go untreated, as it can be uncomfortable and possibly lead to more severe respiratory issues.

A barrel chest itself has no cure or treatment; however, the condition that is causing the barrel chest can typically be treated. It’s important to see a doctor if you suspect you have developed a barrel chest because there is likely a somewhat severe issue that has caused this to occur.

Complications from Barrel Chest COPD

Barrel chest COPD can cause complications if it is not treated properly. Although there is no cure for barrel chest COPD, you can manage the symptoms to reduce the chance that any one of the following complications occurs:

  • Heart attacks
  • Respiratory infections
  • Lung cancer
  • High blood pressure

Heart attacks are one of the most severe complications that can emerge from COPD. COPD is directly related to the cardiovascular system, which means that without proper management, you can suffer from a heart-related issue. Heart-related issues include heart disease, congestive heart failure, and heart attacks, with heart attacks being the most unexpected and deadly complications from COPD.

Respiratory infections can also have serious implications if COPD is left unmanaged. Even a minor respiratory infection can turn deadly for someone who has COPD. Not only do they have a weakened immune system that is relatively inadequate to fight off otherwise common respiratory infections, but respiratory infections can also cause the airways in your lungs to become irritated and inflamed. This enhances the likelihood of suffering from severe complications, including shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, and lower blood oxygen levels, in addition to a lung infection.

Oxygen levels in the blood should be over 95% for your blood to adequately provide oxygen to all of the organs in the body. Blood oxygen levels of less than 95% will reduce the amount of oxygen that is distributed to the organs throughout the body. Low blood oxygen levels mean the organs in the body may not repair themselves as quickly or easily if they become damaged or sick.

How to Treat Barrel Chest COPD

Barrel chest COPD will be treated in the same manner as COPD; the only difference is that barrel chest COPD typically means the COPD symptoms have become so severe that aggressive treatment may be necessary to manage the symptoms.

The symptom that causes the most discomfort is inflammation. It is incredibly important to manage COPD inflammation so that breathing becomes easier. A barrel chest is formed because inflammation makes breathing feel insufficient. This causes you to inhale deeper, which expands your lungs greater than they should be, resulting in barrel chest COPD.

To prevent this from worsening, you will need to manage the COPD symptoms that cause you to overinflate your lungs, and the primary focus will be on reducing inflammation.

The best treatment for reducing inflammation from COPD is through bronchodilator respiratory medications and/or steroids. Bronchodilator medications will relax the airways of the lungs and reduce the irritations that are caused by inflammation; thus, making it easier to breathe.

You may also be given a steroid to help reduce inflammation. Steroids can be taken orally or as an inhalant. Steroids help reduce inflammation which helps those with barrel chest COPD be able to breathe more easily.


Barrel chest COPD is caused by the late stages of COPD, which is typically diagnosed or referred to as emphysema. Emphysema is defined by the damage of the sacs in the lungs due to the lungs becoming overinflated when suffering from shortness of breath.

The shortness of breath makes someone with COPD inhale more often when the lungs have not completely deflated. This causes the lungs to remain overinflated, which results in the chest, developing a barrel shape. This lasts for an extensive-time period and causes the chest to maintain the barrel shape after the lungs have finally returned to their normal size.

There is currently no cure for barrel chest COPD. It is, unfortunately, an outward physical effect that occurs when COPD has progressed to the point when the lungs become overinflated for extensive periods of time.

The good news is that barrel chest COPD can be treated just the same as COPD. This may be through the use of a bronchodilator and steroids. This will help the airways and sacs in the lungs to relax and prevent irritation and inflammation from occurring when suffering from COPD.