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COPD Flare: When You Need to Go to the Hospital

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on December 23, 2020

A COPD “flare-up” is when your symptoms get worse. And if they come on more suddenly or seriously, or last longer than usual, it’s called an “acute exacerbation.” Experts say this is a common reason for hospitalization with COPD.

Other reasons you might go to the hospital for COPD include trouble breathing and signs of a severe infection in your lungs (such as pneumonia).

In these cases, you should get medical help right away. If you don’t, your condition could get worse and you run the risk of lung or heart failure.

When to Call 911

If you have any of the following symptoms, call 911:

These other symptoms are something to call your doctor about but aren’t necessarily emergencies:

  • More coughing or wheezing than usual
  • Shortness of breath that has become worse or happens more often
  • Changes in your mucus (color, odor, blood, amount or thickness)
  • Swelling in your ankles, feet, or legs that’s new or that’s gotten worse and doesn't go away after a night's sleep or putting your feet up
  • Weight loss or gain (2 pounds in a day or 5 pounds in a week)
  • Morning headaches, dizziness, or disorientation
  • Feeling restless, confused, forgetful, irritable, or slurring your speech
  • Extreme fatigue or weakness that lasts for more than a day

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you think you need to go to the hospital because of COPD flare-up, you should know that you’re not alone. COPD is one of the most common breathing conditions that sends people to seek out urgent care for immediate evaluation and treatment.

Experts say that people with COPD have more emergency room visits or overnight hospital stays than those with other chronic health issues.

That’s why it’s helpful to know when your COPD symptoms might be a red flag or a warning sign of something more serious or life-threatening.

Keep in mind that these signs are not always the same every time, meaning that they may change from one flare-up to another.

What to Expect

Depending on how bad your COPD flare-up is, you may have to stay in the hospital overnight, over the weekend, or up to a week in some cases.

Often, the first thing a doctor, nurse, or emergency medical technician (EMT) will do is give you extra oxygen (often called oxygen therapy).

Your vitals -- pulse, temperature, and blood pressure -- will also be checked.

You might get lab or imaging tests, like ultrasounds or scans of your chest. This helps the doctors at the hospital figure out what caused your flare-up and how to treat you.

You may also get certain medications, such as steroids or antibiotics. You may take these treatments orally, by an inhaler, or through an IV.

Afterward, your doctor will set up follow-up visits with you and put together a treatment plan that can help prevent future flare ups.

Make an Action Plan

A COPD flare-up can be a scary experience, and being anxious about it can make your symptoms worse. That’s why it’s helpful to think ahead so you know what to do if you get another flare-up.

Make an emergency action plan and discuss it with your partner or roommate, and a close friend or family member.

Keep phone numbers handy for your doctor, hospital, and someone who can take you to the hospital. Jot down the hospital’s address just in case.

Always keep an up-to-date list of all the medications you’re taking (how much and how often) to give to the doctor when you get to the hospital. It’s also a good idea to include on that list any supplements you take.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Basics About COPD.”

Journal of aging and health: “Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hospital visits, and comorbidities: National Survey of Residential Care Facilities, 2010.”

Emergency medicine clinics of North America: “Management of Acute Exacerbation of Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease in the Emergency Department.”

National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care: “Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): Overview.”

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: “COPD.”

Mayo Clinic: “COPD.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).”

Pulmonology: “COPD exacerbations: management and hospital discharge.”

Canadian Lung Association: “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).”

MA Healthcare Ltd, Independent Nurse: “Managing COPD exacerbations.”

COPD Foundation: “What is an Exacerbation or Flare Up?”

International journal of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: “Risk factors of hospitalization and readmission of patients with COPD exacerbation – systematic review.”

Pulmonary Disease Proceedings of the American Thoracic Society: “Acute Exacerbations and Respiratory Failure in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.”

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