Prevent COPD Exacerbations or Flare Ups

People living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have compromised lungs. That is why it is important to reduce your exposure to anything that can make your COPD worsen.

Know the Signs

You will want to recognize how you feel on a “normal” day or how you feel when your COPD is under control. When you know how you feel on a “good” day, you may be able to recognize when your COPD is getting worse.

A COPD exacerbation or flare up is a sudden worsening of symptoms. These signs or symptoms are worse than your normal symptoms and may last 2 days or more, may get worse and do not go away. You may be able to manage flare ups with medicine and rest. However, flare ups or exacerbations may also be serious, and you may need medical attention.

Common signs of COPD exacerbation or flare up:

  • More coughing
  • Changes to the sputum (mucus or phlegm) you cough up which may include color, thickness, or amount
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Shorter of breath or having a hard time taking a deep breath
  • Wheezing or noisy breathing
  • More fatigue or tiredness

Talk to your healthcare provider about other signs or symptoms of a COPD exacerbation or flare up. You should work with your healthcare provider and have a personalized COPD Action and Management Plan. The action plan should include the steps to take when your COPD is under control, if your COPD symptoms are getting worse and when to seek immediate medical attention.

Avoid COPD Triggers

A COPD trigger is a thing, activity or condition that makes your COPD worse. Understanding which triggers make your COPD worse, then creating a plan to reduce or avoid these triggers are an important step toward COPD control. You can work with your healthcare provider to recognize, reduce or avoid these triggers. 

Each person may have different triggers. Your COPD management plan should include the COPD triggers that you should avoid. 

The most common COPD triggers include:

Cigarette smoke is a major COPD trigger; however, all types of smoke can make it hard to breathe. Other sources of smoke can come from secondhand smoke, wood-burning fireplaces and burning leaves. If you smoke, you should quit. If you do not smoke, but are around secondhand smoke, try to avoid or limit your exposure. The American Lung Association offers several ways to help people quit. Contact the American Lung Association Lung HelpLine at 1-800-586-4872 to speak with a smoking cessation counselor.

TRIGGER EXAMPLES

  • Cigarette, cigar, e-cigarette, or pipe smoke
  • Fireplace, wood burning stove, campfire or leaf-burning smoke

Scents from perfumes, deodorants and cleaning supplies may trigger your COPD. When possible, choose cleaning and personal care products that are odor- or fragrance-free. If you use cleaning supplies or are around strong smells, keep the room ventilated by opening doors or windows. Learn more about indoor air quality

TRIGGER EXAMPLES

  • Cleaning products
  • Scented candles and incense
  • Hairspray
  • Air fresheners or sprays
  • Depending on your occupation or job, you may be around dust, chemical gases or vapors and fumes. These exposures may cause your COPD to become worse. Talk with your healthcare provider and workplace safety advisor about ways to reduce your exposure

Wind, sudden changes in weather, and extreme temperatures (hot and cold) may trigger COPD symptoms. Sometimes people may have COPD, asthma or allergies. Talk to your healthcare provider about how to keep your asthma and allergies under control. 

Some tips to reduce your exposure to these triggers include before you leave your home, prepare for the weather and check the pollen count and air quality index. On windy or cold days, wear a scarf loosely around your face. On days where the temperature is hot or humid, use an air conditioner. 

TRIGGER EXAMPLES

  • Cold, windy or stormy weather
  • Sudden or extreme temperature changes (hot or cold)
  • High humidity
  • Pollen from weeds, trees and grass
  • Air pollution, smog, vehicle exhaust and fumes

Respiratory Infections, such as a cold, flu or sinus infection, are the most common causes of triggering increased COPD symptoms and may lead to a COPD flare-up or exacerbation. Some ways to protect yourself include washing your hands often and avoiding people who are sick. You may also consider avoiding large groups or wearing a mask if you are around large crowds of people. The best way to prevent influenza is to get a flu vaccine every year. You can also protect yourself by getting vaccinated against other infectious respiratory diseases like COVID-19 and pneumonia. Talk to your family and those around you to do the same.

TRIGGER EXAMPLES

  • Respiratory infections (colds, flu, pneumonia, COVID-19, sinus infections)

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: June 7, 2024

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