People with COPD can sometimes experience a flare-up of symptoms, which is called an exacerbation. Infections are often responsible for exacerbations, but there is not always a specific cause.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term for chronic lung diseases that make it difficult to exhale. It is relatively common and affects more than 16 million people in the United States, equating to 6.6% of the adult population.

Exacerbations can cause serious symptoms from which it can take weeks to recover. Although many people with COPD experience exacerbations, it is critical to prevent them whenever possible.

Read more to learn about acute exacerbations of COPD, including their symptoms and how to prevent them.

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An acute exacerbation of COPD is a sudden worsening of symptoms that lasts for several days. During this time, the person will have more difficulty breathing and may produce more sputum — a combination of mucus and other lung fluid — than usual.

Exacerbations are common among people living with COPD. They can lead to serious complications, such as:

  • a decline in quality of life
  • temporary or permanent reduction in lung function
  • reduced exercise capacity
  • hospitalization
  • in rare cases, death

People who have experienced an exacerbation in the past are more likely to have another one in the future.

It is important to be aware of the potentially dangerous complications associated with exacerbations, which are a significant cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide.

In the U.S., they account for more than 700,000 hospitalizations annually. What is more, about 1 in 5 of these hospitalizations involves a readmission within a month.

The symptoms of an acute exacerbation of COPD can differ from person to person. An individual’s symptoms may also vary among different episodes.

Typically, exacerbations involve the worsening of a person’s usual COPD symptoms, such as:

  • breathlessness
  • cough
  • increased sputum production
  • changes in sputum color from clear to deep yellow, green, or brown
  • fatigue
  • trouble sleeping
  • headaches
  • confusion
  • difficulty waking up
  • lower oxygen levels
  • fever

Anyone with COPD who experiences a sudden worsening of symptoms should seek immediate medical attention. Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to prevent serious complications.

The most common cause of acute exacerbations of COPD is a lung or upper airway infection. Often, these infections are viral, but they may also be bacterial.

Other potential causes of exacerbations include:

  • allergens
  • air pollution
  • dust
  • chemical fumes or smoke
  • weather changes

Anyone living with COPD can have an acute exacerbation. However, people who smoke, have severe COPD, or find it difficult to take their medication consistently are more likely to experience them.

It is not always possible to prevent an acute exacerbation of COPD.

However, there are some steps that people with COPD can take to reduce their risk. These include:

  • getting the flu vaccine every year
  • getting the pneumococcal vaccine
  • maintaining a distance from people with a cold or the flu
  • avoiding known triggers, such as smoke and air pollution
  • taking medications according to the prescription
  • quitting smoking, if a person smokes

Being physically active and eating a nutritious diet can improve overall health, which may also reduce the likelihood of exacerbations.

People with COPD should have an action plan in place. This is a personalized set of written instructions that outlines what someone should do if their symptoms worsen.

Typically, treatment for exacerbations aims to control airway swelling and constriction.

At-home treatment options may include:

  • inhaled bronchodilators to ease airway constriction
  • steroids to reduce airway swelling
  • antibiotics to treat bacterial infections, if applicable

A doctor may also recommend supplemental oxygen therapy. This involves using an oxygen tank or nasal cannula to inhale pure oxygen.

However, if a person’s symptoms become severe, they may need to go to a hospital for treatment and monitoring.

There is no cure for COPD, but a treatment plan and regular checkups can help manage the symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.

In rare cases, surgery may help. The options include:

Acute exacerbations of COPD are a serious complication of the condition. It is critical that anyone with COPD is aware of the warning signs of acute exacerbations and takes steps to prevent them.

Learn more about managing COPD and understanding the outlook.

COPD is a chronic and progressive lung disease. People can experience acute exacerbations of COPD, which involve a sudden and severe worsening of symptoms.

Often, infection or breathing in dust or allergens causes the exacerbations.

They can lead to serious illness and, in some cases, hospitalization. People with COPD should take steps to lower their risk of acute exacerbations.