COPD Flare-Ups

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Sometimes your symptoms may get worse over a short time and stay bad. This is called a COPD exacerbation (say "ig-ZAS-ur-BAY-shun") or flare-up. A flare-up can be dangerous, so it's important to know what to do and take action. Your doctor can help you make a plan to manage flare-ups.

Symptoms of a flare-up include:

  • More shortness of breath than usual.
  • Coughing more than usual.
  • A change in the amount, color, or thickness of mucus.

What causes them?

Many irritants or triggers can cause your symptoms to get worse over a short time. Common causes of a COPD flare-up are respiratory tract infections such as colds, flu, and pneumonia. Other causes include indoor and outdoor air pollution such as smoke, fumes, and soot.

What happens during a flare-up?

When you have a COPD flare-up, your airways get irritated. Airflow in and out of your lungs is reduced. It gets harder to breathe. Your symptoms get worse over a short time and stay bad. Symptoms may get better with medicines and care at home. Sometimes care is needed in the hospital.

How are they treated?

Treatment of a COPD flare-up, or exacerbation, depends on how bad the flare-up is. Mild flare-ups may be treated by following your doctor's instructions for using a quick-relief (short-acting) inhaler or oral steroid medicines. More severe flare-ups may involve visits to your doctor's office or clinic. Or you may need to be treated in the hospital. Treatments include:

  • Quick-relief inhaled bronchodilators. These medicines relax the bronchial tubes and make it easier to breathe.
  • Oral steroid medicines. They help your lungs work better.
  • Oxygen, to increase the amount of oxygen in your blood.
  • A machine to help you breathe better or to breathe for you. These are called ventilation machines.

Treatment may also include:

  • Intravenous (I.V.) fluids to treat dehydration.
  • Other bronchodilators.
  • Antibiotics. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to help treat a bacterial infection.


Current as of: August 6, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.