Understanding COPD Exacerbations

COPD exacerbations.

When your symptoms suddenly worsen, you may think you’re just having a really bad breathing day, but it could be a COPD exacerbation. Learn what an exacerbation is and why it’s so important to reduce your risk.

COPD Exacerbation
What is a COPD Exacerbation?

What is a COPD exacerbation?

A COPD exacerbation, or flare-up, occurs when your COPD respiratory symptoms become much more severe. While everyone experiences exacerbations differently, there are a number of possible warning signs — and you may feel as if you can’t catch your breath.

Exacerbations can last for days or even weeks, and may require antibiotics, oral corticosteroids, and even hospitalization. As your lung function declines in the later stages of COPD, exacerbations tend to increase in frequency. Each time they occur, they may leave behind permanent, irreversible lung damage; so it’s important to learn how you can reduce your risk.

Exacerbations are usually caused by a viral or bacterial lung infection, but they may also be triggered by things or situations that make it difficult for you to breathe, such as smoking or being exposed to smoke or air pollution.


COPD Exacerbation Symptoms
Signs of a COPD Exacerbation

Signs of a COPD exacerbation:
what to watch for

The signs of a COPD exacerbation go beyond your day-to-day COPD symptoms. Sometimes it’s easy to confuse them with other conditions like severe allergies, or a very bad cold or sinus infection. If you’re experiencing severe symptoms for any reason, it’s a good idea to report them to your doctor as soon as possible.

The most common signs and symptoms of an oncoming exacerbation are:

  • More coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath than usual
  • Changes in the color, thickness, or amount of mucus
  • Feeling tired for more than one day
  • Swelling of the legs or ankles
  • More trouble sleeping than usual
  • Feeling the need to increase your oxygen if you are on oxygen. If measured, your oxygen levels will be lower than normal

If you experience any of the above symptoms, be sure to call your doctor.

Call 911 if you experience these dangerous warning signs, such as:

  • Severe shortness of breath or chest pain
  • Blue color in lips or fingers
  • Confusion, disorientation, or difficulty speaking in full sentences


Reduce Your COPD Risk
Reduce Your Risk of COPD Exacerbation

Take steps today to reduce your risk

Each time you have a COPD exacerbation, your lung function may decline. However, you can do a lot to help reduce your risk of exacerbations. Here’s how:

  • Stay on your COPD treatment plan.
  • Ask your doctor about other treatment options if you’re experiencing exacerbations or not getting enough relief on your current treatment.
  • Avoid common triggers.
  • Ask your doctor about getting a flu or pneumonia vaccine(s).
  • Follow a healthy lifestyle and practice breathing exercises, relaxation, and body position techniques.


Preparing for a COPD Exacerbation
What to Do if You Have a COPD Exacerbation

Be prepared: what to do if you
have an exacerbation

Even if you’ve never experienced an exacerbation, it’s important to work with your doctor to create a plan that clearly outlines what to do when your symptoms flare.

You should contact your doctor, go to the nearest emergency room, or call 911 if your symptoms are more severe or prolonged than your usual day-to-day COPD symptoms. With COPD, severe symptoms could include extreme shortness of breath and chest pain, and/or you could become agitated, confused, or drowsy.

When exacerbations hit, it’s easy to panic, so be prepared ahead of time. Write down all your emergency information on a sheet of paper and share copies with a designated emergency contact person and other trusted friends or family members.

Your COPD emergency information sheet should include:

COPD Emergency Sheet

Emergency plan instructions from your doctor. 

COPD Emergency Sheet - Contact Information

The name of your emergency contact person who may be able to help you if you cannot help yourself. For example, they can drive you to the doctor or ER if you cannot drive yourself or find other transportation.

COPD Emergency Sheet - List of HCPs

A list of your healthcare providers. Include names, phone numbers, and all relevant contact information.

COPD Emergency Sheet - Medication List

A list of your medications so ER staff treating you can avoid administering drugs that may interact with your current meds.

COPD Emergency Sheet - Insurance Information

Healthcare insurance information. Copy the front and back of your cards or write down your information, including name of insurance plan, Member ID, Group Number, and phone numbers for members and healthcare providers to call.

Be prepared. Create your

COPD Emergency Information Sheet.

Fill out this form and keep copies in your home and office. Keep one in your handbag or wallet, too.

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