COPD – Flare–ups: What to do

COPD – Flare–ups: What to do

A COPD flare-up happens when COPD symptoms (shortness of breath, cough, spitting up mucus) get worse, or when new symptoms develop.

A flare-up is often brought on by a lung infection. Flare-ups are one of the biggest reasons why people with COPD become disabled or have to be hospitalized.

Learning how to avoid flare-ups is an important part of managing your COPD. There are many ways to prevent COPD flare-ups.

It’s also important to know what to do when you do get a flare-up. If you get treatment as soon as you notice the warning signs of a flare-up, you’ll have a better chance of avoiding a serious illness or a hospital stay.

How to prevent flare-ups

       Take good care of yourself. Eat healthy foods, exercise, get enough sleep and stay away from people who are sick. Staying healthy will help your body fight infections.

       Take all of the medications prescribed by your doctor. Ask for help if you have questions about how or when to take medications or what they’re for.

       Talk to your doctor about creating an action plan to deal with potential flare-ups. A written action plan will help you to know when you need to call your doctor or go to the emergency department. Your action plan may also tell you to take more medication or start taking antibiotics if you get a flare-up.

       Get a flu shot every year. Ask your doctor whether a pneumonia shot is right for you.

       Many people with COPD find that being around certain things can set off their symptoms  

       Avoid triggers that can make COPD worse like air pollution, cigarette smoke and breathing very cold or very humid air.

Warning signs & symptoms of a COPD flare-up

Sometimes flare-ups still happen, despite your best efforts to prevent them. Early treatment of flare-ups can prevent you from becoming seriously ill or having to go to the hospital. This is why it’s so important to know the warning signs of a potential flare-up. These warning signs include:

       Mucus (phlegm) that is yellow, green or brown

       An increase in the amount, thickness or stickiness of your mucus (phlegm)

       Chest pain


       Swollen ankles

       Needing to sleep sitting up instead of lying down

       Morning headaches, dizziness, trouble sleeping, confusion

       Blue lips or fingers

       An unusual increase in shortness of breath

       Feeling sick

If you notice any of these signs call your doctor right away. Go to the hospital emergency department if you can’t reach your doctor.

Remember to use your COPD action plan

The action plan that you create with the help of your doctor is a great starting point for knowing what to do to prevent flare-ups and when to seek medical treatment. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

COPD triggers

Some things can irritate your lungs and make your COPD symptoms worse. For example:

       Air pollution, smog

       Second-hand smoke

       Strong fumes, perfume, scented products

       Weather changes

       Cold air or hot & humid air

Avoid COPD triggers indoors

Avoid breathing in the fumes from perfume, paints and cleaning products. Try to buy household products that are unscented. When cooking, turn on your kitchen fan, which should be vented outdoors. Avoid smoke from fireplaces or woodstoves. Avoid second-hand smoke anywhere: in homes, in cars, in restaurants.

Avoid COPD triggers outdoors

If cold air and strong winds bother you, try covering your nose and mouth with a scarf (wrapped loosely) and breathe through your nose. The scarf will help warm the air before it gets to your lungs. On hot humid days, or days of smog, stay indoors in an air-conditioned room.

Things that trigger COPD are often the same things that trigger asthma. In our asthma section, you can read more about triggers and how to avoid them.


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