Part IV: Preventing COPD from Worsening

A period of time when COPD symptoms worsen is known as a COPD exacerbation, commonly referred to as a COPD flare-up. Exacerbations are the #1 reason why people with COPD are hospitalized. As we mentioned in Part II: COPD Treatment, preventing flare-ups is one of the most important goals of COPD treatment. Prevention of COPD exacerbation is so important, we’ve devoted an entire section of this pamphlet to it.

Warning Signs of a COPD Flare-up

It’s important to recognize symptoms of an impending flare-up so you can seek proper medical attention. The primary symptom of a COPD flare-up is worsening shortness of breath that’s usually accompanied by one or more of the following:

  • Increased cough and mucus production
  • Change in the color and/or thickness of your mucus
  • Increased wheezing and chest tightness
  • Fever
  • Feeling more tired than usual

Preventing an Exacerbation

The best way to manage a COPD exacerbation is through prevention. Follow the steps below to lower your risk:

  • Wash your hands frequently and briskly using good-old soap and water. Use an alcohol-based hand-sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available.
  • Get an annual flu shot (and pneumonia vaccine if recommended by your doctor).
  • Stay away from crowds and sick people, especially during cold and flu season.
  • Eat well, get plenty of rest, and exercise daily.
  • Avoid exposure to environmental irritants, such as air pollution and tobacco smoke.

When to Call Your Doctor

Some folks don’t realize they’re having an exacerbation until they’re admitted to the hospital. If you’re not sure you’re having an exacerbation, remember: it’s better to be safe than sorry. Contact your doctor or seek emergency medical treatment if you experience:

  • Shortness of breath that gets worse, occurs more frequently, or wakes you up at night.
  • Greater difficulty in walking a distance that’s normal for you.
  • An increased need to elevate your head when you sit or sleep.
  • Changes in the color, odor, or consistency of your mucus.
  • Worsening cough or wheeze.
  • Swelling in your ankles and/or legs that doesn’t go away when you rest or elevate.
  • Fever, especially when accompanied by cold or flu symptoms.
  • Weight gain of more than 2 pounds in a day or 5 pounds in a week.
  • Frequent morning headaches.
  • An increased need for breathing treatments.
  • An increase in restlessness, confusion, irritability, or slurred speech.
  • An increase in fatigue or weakness that lasts longer than 1 day.