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COPD: Handling a Flare-Up

Topic Overview

If you have COPD, your usual shortness of breath could suddenly get worse. You may start coughing more and have more mucus. This flare-up is called a COPD exacerbation or a COPD attack.

A respiratory tract infection or air pollution could set off an attack. Or it may happen after a quick change in temperature or being around chemicals. You may not always know the cause.

What are the warning signs?

When you have a COPD flare-up, your normal symptoms suddenly get worse:

  • You may have more shortness of breath and wheezing.
  • You may have more coughing with or without mucus.
  • You may have a change in the colour or amount of the mucus.
  • You may have a fever.
  • You may feel very tired.
  • You may be depressed or confused.

Don't panic

Don't panic if you start to have a flare-up. If you are prepared, you may be able to get it under control. Work with your doctor to make a plan for dealing with a COPD attack.

Take your medicines as your doctor says:

  • First, use your quick-relief inhaler. If your symptoms don't get better after you use your medicine, have someone take you to the emergency room. Call an ambulance if needed.
  • With inhaled medicines, a spacer or a nebulizer may help you get more medicine to your lungs. Ask your doctor or pharmacist how to use them properly. Practice using the spacer in front of a mirror before you have a flare-up. This may help you get the medicine into your lungs quickly.
  • If your doctor has given you steroid pills, take them as directed.
  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • Call your doctor if you have to use your antibiotic or steroid pills.

Call 911 if:

  • You also are having chest pain.
  • You feel like you are suffocating.

After treatment, most people recover.

Credits

Current as of: June 9, 2019

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Brian D. O'Brien MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Ken Y. Yoneda MD - Pulmonology
Hasmeena Kathuria MD - Pulmonology, Critical Care Medicine, Sleep Medicine

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