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COPD flare-ups

Breathe a little easier knowing ways to reduce COPD symptom flare-ups

For anyone living with COPD, it’s hard to imagine that breathing can get any worse. Unfortunately, COPD symptoms can get worse over a relatively short period of time. The shortness of breath can, over hours or days, become a struggle to breathe. COPD patients may find themselves wheezing more than usual. Coughs are more frequent and may be accompanied by thicker or even blood tinged sputum. Sometimes, COPD flare ups can be accompanied by fever, chills, chest discomfort, or even confusion. 

Just about anything can make an already inflamed COPD lung worse. The vast majority of COPD exacerbations are triggered by bacterial and/or viral infections of the lung. The remaining 30% of cases are due to environmental pollutants, smoke inhalation, or unidentified causes. The lung function of a COPD patient has less reserve available to minimise the effects of an infection or environmental irritant. The inflamed, mucus rich lung becomes a particularly vulnerable site for infection and colonization by bacteria and viruses. In response to the invasion, the lung cranks up the inflammatory response, thereby making the COPD symptoms worse.

Flare ups become more frequent and more severe as the severity of COPD increases. People with moderate disease have on average about one exacerbation of COPD per year, whereas people with very severe baseline COPD have approximately 2 flare ups per year. 

Don’t despair. If you have COPD, there are a few things you can do to decrease your chance of having an acute flare up:

  1. Stop smoking. It’s a misguided belief to think that the damage is already done, so a few puffs here and there will not make much of a difference. Continued smoking will perpetuate the disease process. Smoke inhalation may trigger COPD flare-ups and ultimately decrease the quality of life.

  2. Be aware of your baseline symptoms. Develop an Action Plan (or steps you should take) with your healthcare provider at the first sign of a flare up. Early diagnosis and treatment can decrease the length and severity of COPD flare ups.

  3. Take COPD medications as prescribed. Work with your health care provider to make sure you have the appropriate COPD medications and are using the medications correctly. 

  4. Wash your hands often and avoid touching your face to reduce your chance of picking up germs.

  5. Make sure you get your annual flu shot.

  6. Make sure your vaccinations (Pneumococcal, Tdap, Zoster) are up to date. 

COPD can be managed with appropriate medical care, a supportive environment, and proactive preventative measures.


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