What are COPD flare-ups and what can I do to prevent them?

A COPD flare-up happens when COPD symptoms (shortness of breath, cough, spitting up mucus) get worse, or when new symptoms develop. A flare-up is often triggered by a lung infection. Flare-ups are one of the biggest reasons why people with COPD become disabled or have to be hospitalized.

Learning how to avoid flare-ups is an important part of managing your disease. And the earlier you treat a flare-up, your chances of avoiding serious illness or a hospital stay improve. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to avoid a flare-up:

  • Take good care of yourself. Eat healthy foods, exercise, get enough sleep and stay away from people who are sick. Staying healthy will help your body fight infections.
  • Take all of the medications prescribed by your doctor. Ask for help if you have questions about how or when to take medications or what they’re for.
  • Talk to your doctor about creating an action plan to deal with a potential flare-up. A written action plan will help you to know when you need to make an appointment to see your doctor or when to go to the emergency department.
  • Get a flu shot every year. Ask your doctor whether a pneumonia shot is right for you.
  • Many people with COPD find that being around certain things can set off their symptoms. Avoid triggers such as air pollution, cigarette smoke and breathing very cold or very humid air.

Know the early warning signals of a flare-up

Sometimes flare-ups still occur, despite even the best efforts to prevent them,. Early treatment of flare-ups can prevent you from becoming seriously ill or having to go to the hospital. This is why it's so important to know the warning signs of a potential flare-up. These warning signs include:

  • mucus that is yellow, green or brown
  • an increase in the amount, thickness or stickiness of mucus
  • chest pain
  • fever
  • swelling of the ankles
  • needing to sleep sitting up instead of lying down
  • morning headaches, dizziness, trouble sleeping, confusion
  • blue lips or fingers
  • an unusual increase in shortness of breath
  • feeling sick.

If you notice any of the above signs call your doctor right away or go to the hospital emergency department if you can't reach your doctor.

Remember to use your action plan

The action plan that you create with the help of your doctor is a great starting point for knowing what to do to prevent flare-ups and when to seek medical treatment. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Additional resources

Page details

Date modified: