Your Action Plan for a COPD Flare-Up
Last updated: January 2023
Hopefully, if you carefully follow your COPD treatment plan, your health will stay on an even keel most of the time. It's realistic, however, to expect that from time to time, you'll suffer with something called a COPD exacerbation. This long medical term simply means that you're having a sudden worsening of your COPD symptoms, one that can last from a few hours to a few days. Flare-up, or attack, is a common term used by non-healthcare professionals to describe this.
Exacerbations are generally caused either by a respiratory infection that further weakens your already weakened airways or by being exposed to some kind of environmental irritant or poor air quality.
Your best bet for dealing with COPD flare-ups is to prevent them from happening altogether. You won't always succeed, but any efforts you can take in that direction will go a long way toward keeping you at your best level of health. Here are some things you can do to prevent COPD attacks from getting started in the first place.
- Get a yearly flu shot and a pneumonia shot as recommended by your doctor. Keeping these two biggie respiratory illnesses at bay is one of the best ways to avoid a flare-up.
- Wash your hands often with warm water and soap, or use hand sanitizer. This can help you avoid viruses found in the environment, such as the common cold virus.
- Avoid other people who are sick with colds, flu or pneumonia. During the winter, when these infections are most common, your best bet might be to stay away from crowds as much as possible.
- Maintain your healthy lifestyle. Drink lots of water, make healthy food choices, get 8 hours of sleep a night. All these things will strengthen your resistance.
- Avoid situations or places that will put you into contact with poor air quality or your known irritants, such as pet dander, if you are sensitive. Anything that affects your airways can trigger a COPD attack.
Recognizing danger signs
Who knows your body better than you? The next step, then, is to be aware of how you are feeling and pay attention to changes in how you are feeling and breathing. Here are some signs to watch out for:
- Persistent cough
- Increased shortness of breath
- Wheezing, or whistling when breathing
- Sudden increase in mucus and/or change in mucus color
- Bluish color around lips or nailbeds
- Headaches when you wake up, a sign of increasing carbon dioxide in the blood
- Swelling in your ankles or legs, a sign of heart involvement
Taking quick action
As soon as you realize you are in the midst of a COPD exacerbation, then it's your cue to take action to begin relieving it. Talk with your doctor ahead of time about what your plan of action should be, and when the right time to take each step might be.
If you use supplemental oxygen only at night or as needed, your action plan may state to start using it continuously while your COPD is flaring up. Or, if you are already on continuous oxygen, perhaps your doctor will tell you that you may increase the flow rate by a liter or two per minute.
Some people use rescue inhalers or nebulizer treatments for short-term relief of breathlessness and coughing. These medications can relax and expand your airways to make breathing easier.
Rest is also important during a flare-up. Allow your body to gather energy to recover from the attack. Focus on controlling your breathing and relaxing, if you can.
Sometimes, an attack worsens so quickly or so severely that you will need to call the doctor. You might even need to make a visit to the emergency room. Here are some danger signs that require professional health care help:
- Blue tint around the lips or fingernails
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath to the point where you are unable to talk
- Mental confusion
- Extreme anxiety
COPD flare-ups can be frightening. But when you know what to expect and how to take the right actions, hopefully, you'll be able to avoid severe health crises and get back on an even keel once again.
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