COPD Flare-Up: What It Is And What You Can Do

People living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) cope with a variety of symptoms, such as coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue and wheezing.

Sometimes, COPD symptoms worsen suddenly or flare-up. To keep you as healthy as possible, here is what you need to know about a COPD flare-up and what to do about it.

What Is a COPD Flare-Up?

Simply put, a COPD flare-up is a sudden worsening of COPD symptoms or an exacerbation. During a flare-up of COPD, you may experience more coughing, wheezing and mucus than usual.

Often, people find it more difficult to breathe, and many people feel anxious. Illnesses caused by viruses or bacteria are the most common causes of a COPD flare-up. However, sometimes the cause is unknown.

COPD Flare-Up Causes Include:

  • Stress and anxiety.
  • Changes in weather.
  • Being around smoke.
  • Pollen, allergens and air pollutants.
  • Extreme fatigue or feeling run-down.
  • Exposure to chemicals, such as cleaning products.
  • Illnesses, such as colds, the flu and respiratory infections.

What Are the Warning Signs for a COPD Flare-Up?

It’s important to know your usual COPD symptoms and your triggers. When you know your triggers, you can avoid them. Knowing your usual symptoms helps you identify a flare-up at its first signs.

A COPD flare-up can last for several days and causes very intense COPD symptoms. For many people, the symptoms worsen and don’t seem to go away. Some people may need to be hospitalized during a COPD flare-up.

Early COPD Flare-Up Signs:

  • Increased coughing.
  • Intense shortness of breath.
  • More wheezing or noise breathing.
  • Changes in amount or color of mucus.

If you notice a change in your overall health, COPD symptoms or lung health, call your doctor right away.

What Can You Do When You Have a COPD Flare-Up?

Stay Calm

If you have a COPD flare-up, the first step is to stay calm. Because of the sudden worsening of symptoms, many people feel intense anxiety during a flare-up. This is normal to feel, but anxiety can actually make you feel even worse.

Take Medications

Take your medications as prescribed by your doctor. Your medications may include a short-acting bronchodilator or rescue inhaler. A rescue inhaler is often used to relieve sudden symptoms. Some doctors may prescribe anti-anxiety medicines to help you relax.

Use Breathing Techniques

Try a breathing technique. The belly breathing technique or diaphragm breathing technique, helps you relax, so you can take deeper breaths.

To do the belly breathing technique, sit in a comfortable position and place one hand on your chest. Next, place the other hand on your belly. Inhale slowly through your nostrils, and focus on feeling your belly rise. Exhale slowly and repeat.

When Do You Need to Call Your Doctor?

COPD flare-ups are a normal part of having COPD. Follow the flare-up plan you and your doctor developed. It’s best to call your doctor if you’ve had a flare-up. 

Your doctor may want to perform tests or give you a check-up to be sure there’s nothing else going on. For example, if your flare-up is caused from an infection, your doctor may need to prescribe antibiotics.

If your symptoms continue to worsen after you’ve taken your flare-up medications or if you still don’t feel well, call your doctor right away.

If you experience chest pain or a suffocating sensation, call 911.

How Can You Prevent a COPD Flare-Up?

You and your doctor will work together to develop a COPD treatment plan and a COPD flare-up plan. It’s important to follow your doctor’s instructions and to take your medications exactly as directed.

Staying on track with your COPD treatment plan can help prevent a COPD flare-up.

Your treatment plan could include taking certain medications, making lifestyle changes, exercising more often, quitting smoking, eating a COPD-friendly diet and trying alternative therapies, such as herbs and supplements.