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Signs and Symptoms of COPD Exacerbation

Signs and Symptoms of COPD Exacerbation

Nov. 16th, 2022

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. COPD is a progressive disease, which means it worsens over time.

People who experience COPD will experience symptoms such as difficulty breathing, chest tightness, wheezing, or mucus concentration in the lungs. Those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are also more at risk for developing health conditions such as heart disease or lung cancer.1

Unfortunately, there is no known cure for COPD. However, early diagnosis and interventions – including medications and giving up cigarettes – can provide symptom relief and even slow the disease’s progression. Many people with COPD are able to control and manage their symptoms with the help of their doctor, resulting in a good quality of life.

Causes of COPD exacerbation

Many individuals with COPD will experience exacerbations, which is when their symptoms are worse than their usual day-to-day. Usually, this is caused by a lung infection, however, sometimes the cause can be unknown. A few causes of COPD exacerbations include:2,3

  • Bacteria or viruses
  • Air pollution
  • Allergies
  • Irritating substances that tighten the airways
  • Secondhand smoke from cigarettes

It can take up to a month for an individual who experiences COPD exacerbation to recover due to the fact that inflammation in the lungs can cause illnesses.

Signs and Symptoms of COPD Exacerbations

Knowing the signs and symptoms of COPD exacerbation can help you seek immediate treatment, which can prevent the chance of the exacerbation from becoming severe.

Here are some symptoms of COPD exacerbations, according to WebMD:4

  • Shortness of breath, especially during light or minimal activity
  • Noisy breathing, from wheezing, gurgling, or rattling. This means mucus or fluid is stuck in your lungs.
  • A worsened cough, which is more severe than usual. Oftentimes it will bring up phlegm or worsen when you lie down.
  • Inability to talk, and needing hand gestures to get your point across
  • Irregular or uneven breathing, which is usually caused by using your chest muscles instead of your diaphragm to breathe
  • Difficulty sleeping or eating
  • Early morning headaches, which are caused by carbon dioxide in the blood
  • Blue or purple nails
  • Changes to skin color, such as a yellow or gray color
  • Swollen ankles, legs, or belly pain
  • A high fever

If you notice your COPD is getting worse, talk to a doctor right away. Your doctor can review your current treatment plan and let you know the next steps you can take to prevent your COPD from worsening.

Tips to Prevent Exacerbation of COPD

While COPD exacerbations are not fully preventable, there are some steps you can take to minimize your chances of experiencing one. Here are a few healthy habits you can use to prevent COPD exacerbations:

  • Stay up-to-date on flu and pneumonia vaccines
  • Avoid close contact with people who have colds or the flu
  • Wash your hands often to prevent infections
  • Take your COPD controller/maintenance medicines exactly as prescribed by your healthcare provider
  • See your healthcare provider as soon as you suspect an infection such as a sinus infection. Antibiotics might be necessary depending on your case.
  • Work with your healthcare provider to develop a COPD action plan

Learn More About Your COPD and Flare-Ups

It can be challenging adapting to COPD, but know that you are not alone. Your doctor can work with you to help you understand your condition and educate you about your risk of flare-ups. Schedule an appointment with a health professional to learn more about the signs and symptoms of COPD exacerbation.

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Saber Healthcare is an organization dedicated to providing consultant services to long-term care providers. This article is for informational purposes and is not meant to be seen as professional advice. Please consult with a medical expert before relying on the information provided.


  1. “COPD.” Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). 15 April 2020. Accessed 2 November 2022. Link:
  2. “Understanding COPD exacerbations.” GSK, COPD Step by Step. Accessed 2 November 2022. Link:,to%20smoke%20or%20air%20pollution.&text=The%20signs%20of%20a%20COPD,%2Dto%2Dday%20COPD%20symptoms.
  3. “Exacerbation of COPD.” American Thoracic Society, PATIENT EDUCATION | INFORMATION SERIES. Link:
  4. Khatri, Minesh. “Signs of a COPD Flare-Up.” WebMD. 18 March 2021. Accessed 2 November 2022. Link: