Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can be difficult to manage. But a COPD action plan can really help you get a handle on things.

A COPD action plan can help you:

  • manage this complex disease
  • stay out of the hospital
  • reduce your symptoms
  • improve your quality of life

This article will explain what these plans involve, how you can create one, and how to use it when your symptoms flare up.

More than 16 million adults in the United States have some form of COPD, according to the American Lung Association. And hospitalizations for COPD are on the rise.

A COPD action plan is a simple document that you create with your doctor. It is similar to an asthma action plan. This plan is tailored specifically to you and helps you understand how to handle your COPD symptoms if or when your condition changes.

With a COPD action plan, your doctor will help you identify the characteristics of each stage of the disease and what you can do when your symptoms fall into these different stages.

The goal is to actively engage with your doctor to create a COPD action plan. The plan will provide you with an easy-to-read outline of:

  • symptoms to expect and when to worry
  • how you can treat these symptoms
  • which medications or interventions you should use

An action plan is important because it can be difficult to concentrate or think clearly during a COPD flare-up. During these exacerbations, you may feel short of breath or have an imbalance of carbon dioxide in your body. This can make it easy to become overwhelmed, confused, or frustrated.

Quickly recognizing a change in your condition and taking action can help control a flare-up and prevent it from becoming worse. Research from 2018 has shown that these plans can help:

  • decrease hospitalizations for respiratory problems and other COPD complications
  • improve shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • improve quality of life
  • motivate and engage people in their COPD care
  • improve the adoption of healthy behaviors
  • help people with COPD develop better skills to manage their condition

According to the same research, the use of a COPD action plan over the course of 1 to 2 years helped reduce respiratory-related hospitalizations in people with COPD from 312 per 100,000 to 238 per 100,000. Respiratory-related deaths dropped from 89 per 1,000 without an action plan to 48 per 1,000 with an action plan.

A COPD action plan is created by you and a doctor.

First, you’ll identify the most common symptoms you experience with your form of COPD and categorize those symptoms. Some plans use a green, yellow, and red light system to provide visual cues.

Green light

In the green light section, you can list how you might feel on a good day. This may include:

  • being moderately active
  • having a good appetite
  • sleeping well

Yellow light

In the yellow light section, you will list symptoms that you might experience during a COPD flare. This is how you feel on a bad day.

Symptoms in this section might include:

Red light

In the red light section, you and your doctor will list symptoms that require immediate medical help, including:

  • severe shortness of breath at rest
  • coughing up blood
  • chest pain
  • confusion
  • drowsiness
  • no tolerance for daily activities

Alongside your description of symptoms in each category, your doctor will create a list of actions you should take based on how you are feeling.

Here’s how the actions may break down by category:

  • Green light. This might include taking your regularly prescribed medications, doing breathing exercises, and avoiding smoking.
  • Yellow light. You may add specific treatments or medications. These may include things like pursed lip breathing, using rescue inhalers, or calling a doctor.
  • Red light. Your plan will usually indicate that it’s time to call for emergency medical care.

Your plan may also include a list of your regularly prescribed medications or therapies and when to use them. In addition, it could provide some basic health information for doctors to understand your overall health.

COPD action plans provide a stepwise example of your unique symptoms, along with a list of how your doctor wants you to manage them — with reminders about when to get extra help.

Your doctor may have their own template for the COPD action plans they prefer to use. But you can also print or save templates to bring with you to your doctor’s office.

Many templates are available online, including from these resources:

Many of these templates have similar features. This can make them easy to use even if you switch doctors. Some templates allow you to type a plan in and print it, while others are ready to print already.

A COPD action plan can provide you with reminders and visual references that help illustrate the severity of your symptoms and remind you of what to do when or if they happen.

You can work together with your doctor to identify the typical symptoms you experience with your form of COPD. You’ll categorize those symptoms and then create a list of actions you should take based on how you are feeling.

A COPD action plan may help prevent or reduce the severity of flare-ups, improve your quality of life, and get you the help you need when you need it.