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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

10 Signs of a COPD Exacerbation

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If you or someone you love has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, knowing the signs of a COPD exacerbation can help keep the illness from worsening. It can also reduce the life-threatening risks from a sudden flare of COPD symptoms.

COPD exacerbations most often start from a lung infection caused by a virus or bacteria, such as a cold or some other illness. Exposure to harmful pollutants can also cause sudden worsening of COPD symptoms.

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Ignoring the signs of an exacerbation can result in hospitalization and accelerate the loss of lung function. It’s critical to seek immediate medical attention to reduce the harm from a COPD exacerbation.

If you have one or more of the following COPD symptoms, call the doctor. If you have medications (antibiotics and oral steroids) at home for COPD exacerbations, your doctor can instruct you in how to treat the symptoms. The doctor can also tell you when it might be necessary to go to the hospital for more immediate treatment.

Warning signs of a COPD exacerbation may include:

1.     Shortness of breath. Someone having a COPD exacerbation may have feelings of breathlessness or a sense of not getting enough air. If the feeling of being short of breath worsens, or if you notice shortness of breath at rest or with little physical activity, seek medical attention.

2.     Noisy breathing. With a COPD exacerbation, wheezing, whistling, gurgling, or rattling sounds may accompany breathing. Wheezing suggests partial obstruction of the airways by mucus, pus, or other inflammatory material. Gurgling or rattling sounds during breathing may indicate an accumulation of fluid in the lungs or mucus in the airways.

3.    Increased anxiety. Everyone needs oxygen to survive. If you feel like you’re not getting adequate oxygen and feel anxious and panicked, it can worsen your ability to breathe as your muscles tense.

4.     Chest breathing. Breathing from the chest -- instead of your abdomen -- may be a warning of a COPD exacerbation. During an exacerbation, the chest may move up and down more quickly, or much more slowly. Breathing may become more irregular.

5.     Cough. Coughing that’s more frequent or severe than usual could indicate a COPD exacerbation. The cough may be dry, or it may bring up yellow, green, or bloody phlegm. Lying down or trying to sleep may cause the coughing to increase. And as breathing worsens, it may become necessary to sit in a chair to breathe rather than lying down to sleep.

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