Exacerbations

How to Handle Exacerbations

COPD exacerbations happen when your usual COPD respiratory symptoms flare up and become much worse than usual. Many exacerbations are caused by a viral or bacterial lung infection. Air pollution can also be a trigger. However, in about one third of severe exacerbations, the cause cannot be identified.1

COPD exacerbations may last for days or weeks and can require antibiotics, oral corticosteroids, and even hospitalization. Theyíre different for everyone, but one thing thatís similar in most exacerbations is that theyíre sudden. When you experience an exacerbation, you may not even realize itís happening at first. The severity of symptoms you experience during an exacerbation goes beyond your day-to-day COPD symptoms.2,3 They typically consist of:

  • Coughing
  • A change in the color or amount of phlegm
  • An increase in shortness of breath

In patients with more severe COPD, exacerbations generally happen more frequently. Exacerbations may also increase with frequency of previous exacerbations, and decreased lung function. Regardless of how many exacerbations youíve experienced, itís important that you talk to your healthcare provider about managing them and do what you can to help prevent them in the future.4

References:
1. What is an exacerbation? American Thoracic Society Web site. http://www.thoracic.org/clinical/copd-guidelines/for-patients/what-is-an-exacerbation.php. Paragraph 1; and "How do I know Iím having an exacerbation?" section, full paragraph. 2. What is an exacerbation? American Thoracic Society Web site. http://www.thoracic.org/clinical/copd-guidelines/for-patients/what-is-an-exacerbation.php. Paragraph 1; and "How do I know Iím having an exacerbation?" section, full paragraph. 3. Global Intiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. Global Strategy for the Diagnosis, Management, and Prevention of COPD: Updated 2015. http://www.goldcopd.org/uploads/users/files/GOLD_Report2014_Feb07.pdf. Page 40, col 1, "Definition" section, para 2, bullet 2; page 42, col 2, "Treatment options" section, para 1 4.Global Intiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. Global Strategy for the Diagnosis, Management, and Prevention of COPD: Updated 2014. http://www.goldcopd.org/uploads/users/files/GOLD_Report2014_Feb07.pdf. Page 14, col 2, last 2 paragraphs; page 15, col 1, table 2.6

If you think you are experiencing an exacerbation, you should call your healthcare provider right away. If you think you have had an exacerbation in the past, you should discuss with your healthcare provider.1

HELP DECREASE YOUR CHANCE OF AN EXACERBATION2,3

Talk to your healthcare provider about things you can do to avoid triggers and help reduce your chance of exacerbations in the future.

Get a flu shot and ask if you need a pneumonia vaccine.
Keep your distance from anyone who has a flu, a cold, or a sore throat.
Keep taking your medications as prescribed.
Wash your hands frequently with soap and water to help protect against infection.

References:
1. What is an exacerbation? American Thoracic Society Web site. http://www.thoracic.org/clinical/copd-guidelines/for-patients/what-is-an-exacerbation.php.
2.Living with COPD. NHLBI Web site. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/copd/livingwith.html. "Get Ongoing Care"
3. Taking Action. NHLBI Web site. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/lung/copd/breathing-better/taking-action.htm.