What Does a COPD Exacerbation Feel Like?

Reviewed on 5/11/2021

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a group of chronic lung diseases that includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (non-reversible) asthma, and some forms of bronchiectasis. Symptoms of a COPD exacerbation (flare-up) include tiredness or fatigue, more shortness of breath than usual, more coughing, more wheezing than usual, feeling unwell, feeling as if you have a cold, mucus changes, swollen legs or ankles, trouble sleeping, and others.
COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a group of chronic lung diseases that includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory (non-reversible) asthma, and some forms of bronchiectasis. Symptoms of a COPD exacerbation (flare-up) include tiredness or fatigue, more shortness of breath than usual, more coughing, more wheezing than usual, feeling unwell, feeling as if you have a cold, mucus changes, swollen legs or ankles, trouble sleeping, and others.

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) refers to a group of chronic, progressive lung diseases that block air flow and cause breathing problems. Types of COPD include: 

Symptoms of COPD include:

  • Frequent coughing 
  • Excess phlegm, mucus, or sputum production
  • Spitting up phlegm (mucus) 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty taking a deep breath

A COPD exacerbation, also called a flare-up, occurs when symptoms of COPD worsen, often quickly and suddenly. Early warning signs of an oncoming COPD exacerbation include: 

  • Feeling more tiredness or fatigue 
  • More shortness of breath than usual
  • More coughing 
  • More wheezing than usual
  • Feeling unwell 
  • Feeling as if you have a cold: fever, sore throat, or other cold symptoms 
  • Changes in mucus color, thickness, or amount
  • Swollen legs or ankles
  • Trouble sleeping/needing to sleep sitting up instead of lying down
  • Feeling the need to increase oxygen in patients who are on oxygen
  • If measured, oxygen levels will be lower than normal

Call 911 immediately or have someone to take you to the nearest hospital emergency department (do not drive yourself) if you experience serious warning signs of a COPD exacerbation such as:

  • Chest pain
  • Feeling as if you are suffocating 
  • Blue lips or fingers
  • Confusion

It is important for patients who have COPD to be prepared for exacerbations and to work with their doctors to have a plan for when they occur. Treating flare-ups promptly can reduce the chances of serious illness and further lung damage. 

What Causes COPD?

The main cause of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) in the U.S. is tobacco smoke. 

Other causes of and risk factors for COPD include: 

  • Inhaling secondhand smoke
  • Exposure to air pollutants in the home and workplace
  • Genetic factors, such as alpha-1 deficiency
  • A history of respiratory infections 
  • Poor indoor air quality (in the developing world)

How Is COPD Diagnosed?

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is diagnosed with a patient history and physical examination, along with the following test: 

  • Spirometry, which is used to measure lung function 
  • Other tests may include:
    • Chest X-ray
    • Arterial blood gas test to measure oxygen levels in the blood

What Is the Treatment for COPD?

Treatment for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is aimed at relieving symptoms, decreasing the frequency and severity of exacerbations, and increasing exercise tolerance. 

Treatments may include:

  • Quitting smoking: this is the most important part of treatment for people who smoke
  • Avoiding secondhand tobacco smoke
  • Avoiding air pollutants at home and at work
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation
  • A personalized treatment program that teaches COPD patients strategies to improve quality of life    
  • Medications to treat symptoms 
  • Bronchodilators to help open airways and make breathing easier
  • Beta2-agonists 
  • Anticholinergics 
  • Anti-inflammatories 
  • Inhaled or oral corticosteroids 
  • Antibiotics for lung infections
  • Vaccinations to prevent lung infections, which can cause serious problems in people with COPD
  • Influenza (flu) vaccine 
  • Pneumococcal vaccine
  • Supplemental oxygen

Treatment for COPD exacerbations may include: 

  • Quick-relief inhaler
  • Nebulizer 
  • Steroids 
  • Antibiotics

QUESTION

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is the same as adult-onset asthma. See Answer

What Are Complications of COPD?

Complications of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) include: 

  • Increased risk of:
  • Limitations to everyday activities such as difficulty walking or climbing stairs
  • Inability to work
  • Need for supplemental oxygen tanks
  • Avoiding social activities such as dining out, attending places of worship, going to group events, or gatherings with friends
  • Increased confusion or memory loss
  • Increased number of emergency room visits or overnight hospital stays
  • Greater likelihood of having other chronic diseases such as congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, or asthma
  • Depression or other mental or emotional conditions

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Reviewed on 5/11/2021
References
https://www.cdc.gov/copd/index.html

https://www.lung.ca/lung-health/lung-disease/copd/flare-ups

https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/copd/treating