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COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) - When to Call a Doctor

Call 911 or other emergency services now if:

  • Breathing stops.
  • Moderate to severe difficulty breathing occurs. This means a person may have trouble talking in full sentences or breathing during activity.
  • Severe chest pain occurs, or chest pain is quickly getting worse.

Call your doctor immediately or go to the emergency room if you have been diagnosed with COPD and you:

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  • Cough up 0.5 cup (120 mL) or more of blood.
  • Have shortness of breath or wheezing that is quickly getting worse.
  • Start having new chest pain.
  • Are coughing more deeply or more often, especially if you notice an increase in mucus (sputum) or a change in the color of the mucus you cough up.
  • Have increased swelling in your legs or belly.
  • Have a high fever [over 101 °F (38.3 °C)].
  • Develop flu-like symptoms.

If your symptoms (cough, mucus, and/or shortness of breath) suddenly get worse and stay worse, you may be having a COPD flare-up, or exacerbation. Quick treatment for a flare-up may help keep you out of the hospital.

Call your doctor soon for an appointment if:

  • Your medicine is not working as well as it had been.
  • Your symptoms are slowly getting worse, and you have not seen a doctor recently.
  • You have a cold and:
    • Your fever lasts longer than 2 to 3 days.
    • Breathlessness occurs or becomes noticeably worse.
    • Your cough gets worse.
  • You have not been diagnosed with COPD but are having symptoms. A history of smoking (even in the past) greatly increases the likelihood that symptoms are from COPD.
  • You cough up any amount of blood.

Talk to your doctor

If you have been diagnosed with COPD, talk with your doctor at your next regular appointment about:

  • Help to stop smoking. To review tips on how to stop smoking, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
  • A yearly flu vaccine.
  • A pneumococcal vaccine. Usually, people need only one shot. But doctors recommend a second one for some people who got their first shot before they turned 65.
  • An exercise program or pulmonary rehabilitation.
  • Any updates of your medicines or treatment that you may need.

Who to see

Health professionals who can diagnose COPD and provide a basic treatment plan include:

You may need to see a specialist in lung disease, called a pulmonologist (say "pull-muh-NAWL-uh-jist"), if:

  • Your diagnosis of COPD is uncertain or hard to make because you have diseases with similar symptoms.
  • You have unusual symptoms that are not usually seen in people with COPD.
  • You are younger than 50 and/or have no history or a short history of cigarette smoking.
  • You have to go to the hospital often because of sudden increases in shortness of breath.
  • You need long-term oxygen therapy or corticosteroid therapy.
  • You and your doctor are considering surgery, such as a lung transplant or lung volume reduction.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: January 24, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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