Certain factors can cause symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to grow more severe. Identifying and finding ways to avoid these triggers can help.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a group of long-term and progressive lung diseases.

A person with COPD may have a variety of symptoms that often get worse over time. The most common symptoms include:

  • wheezing
  • chest tightness
  • coughing
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue

A COPD flare-up is a period in which new symptoms develop or existing symptoms suddenly become more severe.

It is essential to treat these episodes and work to prevent future flare-ups because they can require hospitalization and cause a person’s COPD to progress faster.

In this article, we explore the importance of identifying COPD triggers and discuss ways to avoid them. We also describe the warning signs of a flare-up and general tips for managing COPD.

A young woman in the cold weather which could be a trigger for COPDShare on Pinterest
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Certain factors can trigger or worsen symptoms of COPD, such as:

  • inhaled irritants
  • extreme weather
  • another illness or infection

When a person has a flare-up of symptoms, it is important to identify any possible causes. Keeping a symptoms diary can help.

Once a person has pinpointed the likely triggers, they can take steps to prevent future flare-ups.

Flare-ups do not always have an obvious cause, but doctors recognize that the following often trigger COPD symptoms:

Cigarette smoke

According to the American Lung Association, smoking is responsible for 85–90 percent of all cases of COPD, and inhaling tobacco smoke can worsen existing symptoms of COPD.

Over time, smoking damages the lungs by causing inflammation, narrowing the air passages, and destroying the air sacs. In people with COPD, smoking can irritate the airways, increase the risk of lung infection, and speed up the disease’s progression.

A person COPD should quit smoking, and a doctor can advise about programs and medications that can help. It is also important to avoid secondhand smoke.

Cold, hot, or humid weather

Extreme weather can trigger COPD symptoms in some people.

In a 2017 study, researchers asked 106 people with COPD to record their symptoms, the humidity level, and the temperature each day for about a year and a half.

The researchers found that low temperature and high humidity were likely to trigger COPD symptoms in participants.

The researchers recommended that people with COPD prevent the temperature indoors from dropping below 18.2°C (64.8°F) and ensure that the humidity level stays below 70 percent. A dehumidifier can help reduce indoor humidity.

People with COPD should also consider limiting the time spent outdoors in very hot, cold, or humid weather.

When venturing outdoors in cold weather, it can help to cover the mouth and nose with a scarf or cold-air mask.

Air pollution

Pollutants such as car fumes, chimney smoke, pollen, and dust can irritate the lungs and airways. Research indicates that air pollution can cause sudden flare-ups of COPD symptoms and increase the risk of complications and even death.

To reduce exposure to air pollution, check daily air quality forecasts. If possible, limit the time spent outdoors when the air quality is poor and avoid rush-hour traffic.

High ozone levels may also contribute to symptoms of COPD. Ozone levels tend to rise in the afternoons and during the summer. It can help to plan outdoor activities in the morning, when ozone levels are likely to be lower.

Respiratory infections

Because COPD damages the lungs, it increases the risk of respiratory infections, including colds, the flu, and pneumonia. These issues are also more likely to become severe and lead to complications.

Respiratory infections can also cause COPD symptoms to flare up.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that people with COPD get vaccinated against pneumococcal diseases and receive an annual flu shot. A person’s doctor may also recommend other vaccinations.

Washing the hands frequently, practicing good overall hygiene, and keeping away from people with respiratory infections can reduce the risk of becoming infected.

Dust and fumes

Inhaling dust, fumes, or chemicals can irritate the lungs and lead to difficulty breathing.

In a 2015 study that included 167 people with COPD, more than half the participants reported that certain household chores and chemicals made their symptoms worse. These triggers included:

  • sweeping, dusting, and vacuuming
  • cleaning products
  • perfumes
  • scented products, such as candles, bug spray, and hair products
  • wood smoke

People with COPD should avoid inhaling products that irritate the lungs or worsen symptoms. When cleaning or using chemicals, keep the area well ventilated, take regular breaks, and consider wearing a protective mask.

Recognizing the warning signs of a COPD flare-up is critical because it gives a person a chance to intervene.

Treating a flare-up in the early stages can reduce the likelihood that a person will require hospitalization.

Warning signs of a COPD flare-up can include:

  • increased coughing or wheezing
  • increased shortness of breath
  • a change in the amount, color, or consistency of mucus
  • fever
  • swelling in the feet, legs, or ankles
  • more frequent use of medications to treat symptoms

When experiencing a flare-up, it is important to stay calm and take any rescue medications. If symptoms continue to grow worse, contact a medical professional or go to a hospital.

In addition to avoiding triggers, the following tips can help a person manage their COPD symptoms.

Taking medications correctly

The range of prescription medications for COPD includes:

  • short-acting and long-acting bronchodilators
  • inhaled steroids
  • oxygen therapy

It is important to understand exactly when and how to take these medications. A person should use some only when needed, for example, to treat a sudden flare-up.

A person may need to take other medications once or twice a day, but these cannot provide quick relief in the event of a flare-up.

Also, not all inhalers work in the same way. Always follow a doctor’s instructions. They can also show someone the correct technique for using a specific type of inhaler.

Learning to cough effectively

COPD can cause mucus to thicken, making it difficult to bring up in a cough.

If mucus remains in the lungs, it can make breathing difficult and increase the risk of infection. A healthcare provider can advise about the most effective ways to bring mucus out of the lungs.

Maintaining a healthful lifestyle

For people with COPD, focusing on maintaining overall health can increase energy levels, reduce the risk of infection, and enhance the quality of life.

It can help to:

  • maintain a healthful weight
  • eat a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of lean protein, vitamins, and minerals
  • get a little exercise each day, such as walking, cycling, or swimming
  • get at least 7 hours of sleep each night

Attending pulmonary rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation classes combine a monitored exercise program with education on lung disease.

Participants learn about medication, nutrition, and how to identify signs of infection. They also learn breathing techniques to prevent shortness of breath and strategies for dealing with stress.

There is currently no cure for COPD, but medications and lifestyle changes can slow the progression of the disease and help to keep symptoms under control.

Work with a healthcare provider to develop a plan for managing COPD.

The plan may involve learning to recognize when symptoms are flaring up and treating them as soon as possible. Identifying and avoiding COPD triggers can help reduce or prevent these flare-ups.