COPD Exacerbation Symptoms: What To Look For

People living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) understand the importance of taking care of their lungs, avoiding triggers and following a treatment plan to prevent COPD flare-ups.

Sometimes, COPD flare-ups are called COPD exacerbations. When it comes to COPD exacerbation symptoms, here’s what to look for and what you can do.

Typical COPD Symptoms

Typically, COPD causes symptoms including fatigue, constant coughing, shortness of breath and wheezing. Often, these typical symptoms vary in severity and frequency from person to person.

This can depend on the stage of the condition and the overall health of the person. Basically, COPD symptoms affect people differently. So, it’s important to know your typical COPD symptoms.

COPD Exacerbation Symptoms

Usually, COPD exacerbation symptoms intensify your typical symptoms. This worsening of symptoms may last two or more days.

Sometimes, severe COPD exacerbations require hospitalization. If you’re concerned that you may be experiencing a COPD exacerbation, call your doctor immediately.

Early Warning Signs

Generally, there are early signs of an exacerbation. These signs include increased difficulty catching your breath, noisier breathing sounds and more coughing.

Other signs of an exacerbation include morning headaches, an inability to take deep breaths, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, difficulty speaking, pale skin, abdominal pain and a bluish discoloration to your lips, toes or fingertips.

Examples of Common COPD Exacerbation Symptoms:

  • Fast and often shallow breathing
  • Shortness of breath at rest or with minimal activity
  • Intense coughing
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Confusion
  • Having lower oxygen levels than normal
  • Increased mucus production
  • More wheezing

What Causes a COPD Exacerbation?

Knowing the triggers of your COPD exacerbation symptoms can help you avoid them. The most common causes of COPD exacerbations are developing an illness, such as the flu or pneumonia.

In addition, people with COPD have a higher risk for catching the flu or pneumonia. While people often have different triggers, there are several common ones, which include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Flu
  • Allergens
  • Air pollution
  • Smoke and smoking
  • Stopping or not using COPD medications as prescribed

What Can I Do at the First Sign of an Exacerbation?

Know your typical COPD symptoms and how they generally affect your life. If you notice a change to your typical COPD symptoms, you may be having COPD exacerbation symptoms.

The best first step you can take is to stay calm and call your doctor right away. Your doctor will tell you if you need come in for an office visit or if you need to go straight to the hospital. Always follow the instructions of your doctor.

Generally, your doctor will develop a COPD exacerbation plan with you ahead of time. That way you will know what to do in case of a sudden worsening of symptoms. Your doctor will individualize your COPD exacerbation plan to your needs.

Often, COPD exacerbation plans include:

  • Staying calm
  • Calling your doctor
  • Taking flare-up medications, such as rescue inhalers and medications, as prescribed by your doctor
  • Using prescribed oxygen therapy
  • Practicing pursed lips breathing

How Can I Prevent COPD Exacerbations?

There are several things you can do to prevent COPD exacerbation symptoms and stay healthier. Staying up-to-date on all of your vaccinations can help.

Remember to have your yearly flu vaccine, and talk with your doctor about other important vaccinations, such as the pneumonia vaccine. Many people with COPD also avoid crowded places to reduce their risk of getting sick.

Seasonal allergies, indoor air pollution and outdoor air pollution can all cause problems. Check the local air quality report before heading outside. In addition, reduce indoor air pollution by keeping dust and other indoor allergens down.

Eat, sleep and exercise for a healthier you. Aim to get at least seven to eight hours of sleep every night. Even gentle exercise has the potential to help people with COPD improve their strength and stamina. Also, make sure you eat a COPD-friendly diet that consists of lean protein, plenty of fruit and vegetables as well as whole grains. Your body needs a wide range of nutrients to function at its best.

Learn how to wash your hands properly. This may seem silly, but many people don’t wash their hands thoroughly enough to lower the number of germs on their hands.

Steps for proper hand washing:

  1. Wash your hands in warm water and lather your hand with soap.
  2. Rub your hands together vigorously, making sure to go between your fingers and on the backs of your hands.
  3. Keep rubbing your hands at least 20 seconds.
  4. If you’re not sure how long that is, then sing the ABC Song twice while washing.
  5. Rinse and dry your hands well.

In addition, make sure you use your inhalers properly. Ask your doctor or pharmacist to show you how to take all of your medications. This way you’ll be able to receive the most benefits from them.

Take the Next Step to a Healthier You

Along with learning about COPD exacerbation symptoms and how to deal with them, it’s important to see your doctor regularly even if you’re feeling well.

You and your doctor can work together to develop a comprehensive COPD treatment plan to address your disease, its symptoms and exacerbation risks.

Many people have found following a comprehensive treatment plan helpful in managing their disease symptoms. Comprehensive plans may include dietary changes, exercise, stopping smoking, COPD medications, oxygen therapy and more.