Learn to Recognize and Manage COPD Exacerbations

Learn to Recognize and Manage COPD Exacerbations

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients experience exacerbations, i.e. flare-ups, from time to time. During flare-ups, COPD patients experience extreme shortness of breath and chest tightness. These exacerbations may be caused by an infection, exposure to irritant fumes, etc. But, it is also possible that they occur without any identifiable causes.

Given the fact that the symptoms of COPD exacerbations are pretty severe, it is important to learn to recognize and manage flare-ups to avoid serious medical consequences and hospitalization. Now, if you want to learn more, especially if you’ve already been diagnosed with COPD, continue reading below.


Even though some COPD patients rarely have exacerbations, others experience them quite frequently. Common COPD symptoms include wheezing, fatigue, and exercise intolerance which are present regularly, every day. However, during a flare-up, COPD patients may experience other more severe symptoms, including:

  • Dyspnea (inability to catch your breath)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Worsened wheezing
  • Severe coughing
  • Mucus amount, thickness, and color changes
  • Chest tightness
  • Fever (in case of an infection)
  • Tachypnea (rapid breathing)
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness

As soon as you experience COPD exacerbation symptoms, it is crucial that you initiate treatment right away. In mild cases, you may manage exacerbations at home if your doctor has given you instructions on how to do so. Otherwise, if you have new symptoms or more severe ones, ensure you seek medical help promptly.


Worsening chest tightness and shortness of breath are the main symptoms that characterize a COPD exacerbation episode. Yet, some diagnostic tests can also be done in a medical care setting, to confirm a COPD flare-up and possibly identify the cause of it. These tests may include:

  • Blood oxygen level
  • Arterial blood gas
  • Sputum culture
  • Chest X-ray
  • Computerized tomography (CT)
  • Pulmonary function tests (PFTs)


There’s no one treatment plan suitable for every COPD patient. Indeed, COPD differs from person to person which is why every patient needs an individual approach and treatment.

At-Home Treatment

In general, rescue bronchodilators, oxygen supplementation, and inhaled steroids are the first home treatments. These are fast-acting medications that help open the airways and reduce inflammation.

Urgent Care

In severe cases, emergency treatment in a hospital is needed. To treat a severe COPD flare-up, doctors may use oxygen therapy, glucocorticosteroids, non-invasive ventilation, and/ or mechanical ventilation.


If a bacterial lung infection is the cause of a COPD exacerbation episode, doctors may prescribe antibiotics. They may relieve symptoms soon, but it is important to finish your dose so that you can rest assured that the infection doesn’t reoccur within a few weeks.


Finally, to reduce the risk of COPD exacerbations you have to seriously consider prevention. Taking your medications is key to increasing your lung function and avoiding lung inflammation and mucus buildup. On the other hand, several lifestyle changes can also help you prevent flare-ups, including:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Getting an annual flu shot
  • Doing regular exercise
  • Eating a healthy and balanced diet
  • Washing hands regularly
  • Getting enough sleep

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation features supervised techniques such as breathing exercises, physical exercises, and pulmonary hygiene, to help you maintain both physical and pulmonary conditioning. It can also help improve your lung function and prevent a decrease in your respiratory abilities.

The bottom line, now that you’ve learned how to recognize and manage COPD exacerbations, talk to your doctor to ensure you get the best prevention and treatment.