Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lifelong lung condition that affects breathing. People with COPD can experience flare-ups of symptoms, known as exacerbations. Creating an action plan with the help of a healthcare professional can help people with COPD manage their symptoms and have greater control over their condition.

The most common forms of COPD are chronic bronchitis, in which the airways of the lungs become inflamed, and emphysema, which damages the lungs’ air sacs.

Exacerbations can cause someone to be extremely ill, and it may take weeks for them to recover completely. Therefore, it is important to prevent COPD flare-ups whenever possible and to manage them properly when they do occur. COPD action plans are part of this management.

Keep reading to learn more about action plans for COPD, find out why they are important, and see an example of a plan.

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A COPD action plan is a set of written instructions explaining the steps that an individual should take if their symptoms worsen. The idea is to follow these steps at the first sign of an exacerbation.

The action plan may detail how a person can relieve their symptoms, which might include information about when to take medications and when medical attention is necessary. People can work with a healthcare professional to tailor this plan to their individual and specific needs.

A COPD action plan includes:

  • details regarding the person’s current medications and dosages
  • information on when to take medication and how to use it properly
  • dietary and activity recommendations
  • a list of symptoms that indicate a COPD flare-up
  • when to call the doctor or go to the emergency room

Action plans are important tools that may help people with COPD manage their condition. They can teach people to recognize an exacerbation at an earlier stage and act accordingly.

In addition, an action plan that details what to do in an emergency can give people a sense of control over their condition and help reduce anxiety.

Action plans can be good self-management tools that can help by:

  • reducing the duration of exacerbation symptoms
  • reducing hospitalizations and healthcare costs
  • improving quality of life for people with COPD

Doctors and other healthcare professionals develop COPD action plans specifically for an individual. When designing the plan, they should consider the severity of the person’s COPD, their medications, and their overall health.

The doctor should include personalized information on when to take medications, call the doctor, or seek emergency care. The plan may also allow people to track their health, including any changes to their condition or concerns that they wish to discuss with a doctor.

It is important that people with COPD understand their action plan and feel comfortable following it.

Example plan

The American Lung Association (ALA) provides an example action plan that an individual can complete with help from their healthcare team.

The action plan describes the symptoms that a person should look out for and explains at what stage they should take specific medications.

Individuals are in the green zone if they are doing well and experiencing just their usual symptoms. They are able to maintain their usual activity and exercise level, and the condition is not significantly affecting their sleep. COPD treatment and management aim to keep people in the green zone.

A person enters the yellow zone if they are more breathless or coughing more than usual and have less energy. They may need to use a quick-relief inhaler and start taking corticosteroids or antibiotics. At this point, they can still self-manage care but should speak with a doctor if their symptoms do not improve.

If medications do not relieve the symptoms, the individual may enter the red zone. This means that they have severe symptoms and shortness of breath. At this point, although a person can take more quick-relief medication, they should seek emergency medical attention.

COPD action plans are an essential part of self-management. An individual can get the most out of their action plan by:

  • displaying the plan prominently in the home where it is easy to find, even during stressful situations
  • sharing the plan with family and friends and talking them through it
  • reviewing the action plan regularly with their healthcare team — for example, annually or after a flare-up
  • learning to recognize the early signs of a flare-up, as the sooner someone seeks medical attention or uses appropriate medications, the better their recovery will be
  • being prepared with extra supplies of medications and keeping them in a safe location close to the COPD action plan
  • adding a date to the current action plan and disposing of old action plans to avoid confusion

People living with COPD and their caregivers may sometimes feel overwhelmed and isolated. Therefore, they may benefit from a caring support system that encourages them to share their experiences and provides advice that may help them.

The ALA provides a free lung helpline that offers counseling from lung health experts. Individuals can call 800-LUNGUSA (800-586-4872 and press 2) or submit a question through the online form.

The ALA also has an online support community where people living with COPD can connect with each other. The Better Breathers Club also offers in-person meetings and events throughout the country.

COPD is a chronic and progressive lung disease. People can experience COPD flare-ups, during which the symptoms suddenly worsen, and a person may have extreme difficulty breathing. These flare-ups can make people very ill, and it can take weeks for them to recover.

People can manage flare-ups using a COPD action plan, which they will have created with the help of healthcare professionals. These plans outline the steps that someone should take if their breathing deteriorates. Typically, they outline what medications people should use and when they should seek emergency medical attention.

COPD action plans can help people feel more in control of their symptoms and have a higher quality of life.