Strategies for Dealing with COPD Flare-ups

Health Professional

When you have COPD, it is important to understand that sooner or later you are going to experience a COPD flare-up. Knowing how to recognize it is happening and what to do when it does are essential to getting things back under control.

What Is a COPD Flare-up?

A COPD flare-up is when your COPD symptoms get worse than usual. The medical term for this is a COPD exacerbation. Periodic flare-ups are an expected part of the course of COPD disease. Even if you do everything right when it comes to caring for your COPD, chances are you will have a flare-up now and then.

How Will I Know If I'm Having a Flare-up?

The main symptoms of a flare-up include:

  • Shortness of breath that is more severe or happens more often. It might affect your ability to walk, to eat, or to care for yourself in other ways. It might interfere with restful sleep.

  • Changes in mucus (also called sputum or phlegm) color. If your mucus changes to yellow or green or has blood in it, if it's thicker and harder to cough up, and/or if it has an odor, these are signs of a flare.

  • Increases in coughing and/or wheezing. This usually goes along with the other symptoms above.

Other less common symptoms might include:

  • Swelling in your ankles, feet or legs
  • Morning headaches or dizziness
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain of 2 pounds in a day, or 5 pounds in a week
  • Fever
  • Restlessness, confusion or irritability
  • Increased fatigue or weakness that lasts more than a day

What Steps Should You Take If You're Having a Flare-up?

The most important thing is not to ignore the change in symptoms described above. They are signs that something is not right in your body and that your COPD control is slipping. This annoying increase in symptoms can quickly escalate into a life-threatening emergency. You don't want to let it get that far

1. If you have a written COPD Action Plan, use it as a guideline on what actions to take. You might need to take an extra breathing treatment. Perhaps you can use your rescue inhaler or increase one of your other COPD medications. Don't do this on your own -- only if you have written instructions to that effect.

If those things don't relieve your worsening symptoms, then you'll need to take the next step or steps.

2. First, call your doctor, if s/he is available. It's important to know how to get in contact after hours or on the weekends. Describe what is going on and what you have done about it (such as increasing your breathing treatments) as thoroughly as possible. Then, follow the instructions you are given.

3. If you can't reach your doctor quickly, you may need to go to an urgent care clinic or even the emergency department of your local hospital. Be sure to bring a list of your medications and treatments, as well as the information about your physician.

The bottom line in dealing with COPD flare-ups is to take action. It's best not to just wait them out. In most cases, they won't get better and they may even get worse, if you do nothing. So, be proactive in managing your COPD and your health.

Further Reading:

COPD Medicaton Safety Tips: Reduce Your Risk

Emphysema vs. Chronic Bronchitis: Understanding the Differences

Maintaining a Healthy Diet With COPD