COPD overview

COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a common form of lung disease. COPD causes inflammation in your lungs, which narrows your airways. Symptoms can include shortness of breath, wheezing, tiredness, and frequent lung infections such as bronchitis.

You can manage COPD with medications and lifestyle changes, but sometimes symptoms worsen anyway. This increase in symptoms is called an exacerbation or flare-up. The following treatments can help restore your normal breathing during a COPD flare-up.

If you have COPD, you should have an action plan from your doctor. An action plan is a written statement of steps to take in the event of a flare-up.

Your action plan will most often direct you to your quick-acting inhaler. The inhaler is filled with a medication called a quick-acting bronchodilator. This medication helps open up your blocked airways. It can have you breathing more easily within a few minutes. Commonly prescribed quick-acting bronchodilators include:

  • albuterol
  • ipratropium (Atrovent)
  • levalbuterol (Xopenex)

Your doctor might also prescribe a long-acting bronchodilator to use for maintenance treatment. These medications may take several hours to work, but they can help you breathe freely in between flare-ups.

Corticosteroids are anti-inflammatory drugs that quickly reduce inflammation in your airways. During a flare-up, you might take a corticosteroid in pill form. Prednisone is a corticosteroid that’s widely prescribed for COPD flare-ups.

Corticosteroids have many potential side effects. These include weight gain, bloating, and changes in blood sugar and blood pressure. For this reason, oral corticosteroids are used only as a short-term solution for COPD episodes.

Corticosteroid medications are sometimes combined with bronchodilator drugs into one inhaler. Your doctor might have you use this combination medication during a flare-up. Examples include:

  • budesonide/formoterol (Symbicort)
  • fluticasone/salmeterol (Advair)
  • fluticasone/vilanterol (Breo Ellipta)
  • mometasone/formoterol (Dulera)

If you have COPD, your lungs produce more mucus than the lungs of an average person. Excess mucus raises your risk of bacterial infection, and a flare-up can be a sign of bacterial infection. In fact, studies have shown that about 50 percent of mucus samples taken during COPD flare-ups test positive for bacteria.

Antibiotics can clear up an active infection, which in turn reduces airway inflammation. Your doctor may give you a prescription for antibiotics to fill at the first sign of a flare-up.

With COPD, you may not get enough oxygen due to trouble breathing. As part of your ongoing treatment, your doctor may prescribe oxygen therapy.

Oxygen therapy helps relieve the shortness of breath that occurs during a flare-up. If you have advanced lung disease, you may need oxygen therapy all the time. If not, you may only need the extra help during a flare-up. Your oxygen therapy may occur at home or in the hospital based on how severe the flare-up is.

If you’ve lived with COPD for a while, you’re probably used to handling occasional flare-ups at home. But sometimes, a flare-up can become severe or life-threatening. In these cases, you could need treatment in the hospital.

If you have any of these symptoms, call your doctor right away:

  • chest pain
  • blue lips
  • unresponsiveness
  • agitation
  • confusion

If your symptoms are severe or you think you’re having a medical emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

While all of these treatments can be helpful, it’s even better not to have a flare-up in the first place. To avoid a flare-up, know and avoid your triggers. A trigger is an event or situation that often causes a flare-up of your COPD symptoms.

Each person with COPD has different triggers, so everyone’s prevention plan will be different. Here are some tips for avoiding common triggers:

  • Quit or refrain from smoking, and steer clear of secondhand smoke.
  • Ask coworkers not to wear strong scents around you.
  • Use unscented cleaning products in your home.
  • Cover your nose and mouth while out in cold weather.

In addition to avoiding your triggers, keep a healthy lifestyle to help prevent flare-ups. Follow a low-fat, varied diet, get plenty of rest, and try gentle exercise when you’re able. COPD is a chronic condition, but proper treatment and management can keep you feeling as good as possible.