COPD Flare-Ups: How to Prevent and Manage
What Is COPD?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a very common form of lung disease characterized by breathing difficulty, shortness of breath, increased mucus production, chronic cough, fatigue, and an increased risk of developing respiratory infections like bronchitis. According to the National Institutes of Health, smoking is the number one cause of COPD. COPD can’t be cured, but you can prevent and manage symptom flare-ups through medical means and lifestyle choices.
If you’re a smoker and have COPD, the time to quit is now. The World Health Organization states that smoking cessation is the most effective way to reduce your risk of developing COPD and prevent the progression of the disease. If you’ve been diagnosed with COPD, you can more effectively manage your symptoms when you’re smoke-free.
In addition to being the leading cause of COPD, according to the American Cancer Society, more than 60 chemicals in tobacco products are known carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents. Ask your doctor for help if you are having trouble quitting on your own.
Staying as healthy as possible can reduce your risk of experiencing a COPD flare. A flare is an increase of symptoms or the onset of new symptoms, also called an exacerbation. Follow a nutritious diet that includes lean proteins, whole grains, fresh produce, and low-fat dairy products.
Get plenty of sleep each night and stay away from people who are sick. Wash your hands often during cold and flu season to prevent yourself from catching a virus that can affect your respiratory system. Your doctor may recommend getting a flu and/or pneumonia shot for added protection.
Triggers are substances or situations that can cause an exacerbation of symptoms. In regard to COPD, triggers irritate the lungs more than usual, which leads to an increase in wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, or fatigue.
Cold and hot weather can be triggers, especially when the air is humid. Chemical irritants can include paint fumes, mist or spray from household cleaners, and air pollution. Secondhand smoke and even strong perfume may cause a flare-up in some COPD patients. Avoid these and any other known triggers to prevent discomfort.
Ventilate your kitchen with a fan when using the broiler, and use the air conditioner or fan in your home instead of opening windows on a hot summer day. Cover your nose with a scarf if you must go out when the weather is below freezing.
You may think that because you have chronic lung disease, you can’t exercise. In most cases, this is not true. Low-impact exercise under the direction of your doctor is part of living a healthy lifestyle and is an effective management tool for a number of chronic illnesses.
Speak to your doctor about walking to increase muscle strength in your lower body. You will most likely have to start slowly, but as you gain strength over time, you can increase your walking distance and pace. If you become short of breath while exercising, stop and continue when you are feeling better. Increasing your exercise tolerance is a goal that can prevent flare-ups and help you manage your breathing more easily.
One of the hallmarks of COPD is inflammation of the bronchial tubes, or the airways that deliver oxygen to the lungs. When the tubes are inflamed, the airways narrow, making breathing much more difficult. A variety of inhaled or oral medications may be helpful to you. Some reduce inflammation and keep the airways in between flares. These medications are sometimes referred to as “maintenance drugs,” and can include corticosteroids to reduce swelling and bronchodilators to open up airways. Some medicines are a combination of both types of drugs. Remember to take your medication exactly as directed every day to keep your symptoms at bay.
Make a Plan
Create an action plan together with your doctor and family so you will know just what to do when experiencing the first signs of a flare-up. Your action plan should include a personalized list of things to do when your symptoms are exacerbated, based on your individual symptom patterns. The plan will list the dosages of quick-relief medications you may need to take and at what point you should contact your doctor, among other instructions.
Make sure your family members all have a copy of your plan and that you have refills of rapid-onset medications for your inhalers so everyone will know how to help you when a flare-up occurs.
Managing a Flare-Up
Acting quickly can minimize the symptoms of a COPD flare-up and get you on the road to being healthy again. Pull out your action plan and follow each step in turn. Fast-acting medications for COPD are inhaled medicines that open up your bronchial tubes and ease your breathing within minutes. Depending on the intensity of your symptoms, you may require supplemental oxygen until your breathing improves. If your doctor notices signs of infection, you might also start on a course of antibiotics.
Seek Emergency Help
Sometimes a COPD exacerbation becomes very serious very quickly and requires immediate medical attention. Call 911 immediately if you or a loved one with COPD experiences:
- a change in the color or volume of mucus
- coughing up blood
- a fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
- blue lips or fingers
- chest pain
- extreme shortness or breath
- agitation or confusion
Keep to Your Action Plan
COPD flare-ups can be scary, but are normal in the progression of the disease. Remain calm and follow your action plan to get your symptoms under control as quickly as possible, and eliminate the need for inpatient medical care. Preventing exacerbations through healthy diet, exercise, and lifestyle choices is an even better plan. Maintaining your best possible health may keep the wheezing, infection, and coughing away for long stretches of time.