What Causes COPD Exacerbations?

Kenneth Knowles, MD
Medically reviewed by Kenneth Knowles, MDApril 8th, 2020
coughing older woman

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (

COPD), you may have noticed that your symptoms sometimes become more severe or last longer than usual. These flare-ups are referred to as “exacerbations,” and once you’ve experienced one, there’s a higher chance that you’ll have another. It’s important to understand what causes

COPD exacerbations so that you can take steps to avoid them in the future.

In many cases, COPD exacerbations are caused by infections in the lungs or airways, whether viral or bacterial. When an infection develops, it can cause inflammation, swelling, and mucus production, all of which can narrow the airways and make it more difficult to breathe. Other causes of COPD exacerbations include:

  • Air pollution
  • Allergies
  • Cold air
  • Dust
  • Overexertion
  • Smoke
  • Stress

It’s also important to note that some COPD exacerbations have no known cause.

What Are the Symptoms of a COPD Exacerbation?

True to their name, COPD exacerbations tend to exacerbate (worsen) the usual symptoms of COPD. As noted above, COPD exacerbations make it harder to breathe, and you might have trouble catching your breath when performing day-to-day activities like bathing or climbing the stairs. In addition to greater difficulty breathing, you may notice:

  • Increased coughing or wheezing
  • A change in the amount, color, or thickness of mucus
  • Fever
  • Fatigue and difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches, especially in the morning
  • Abdominal pain
  • Swelling in the legs and ankles
  • Increased anxiety

Exacerbations can begin quickly—sometimes within hours—and some people continue feeling residual effects of a COPD exacerbation for a month or even longer. People tend to experience exacerbations in different ways. So if you’ve had one in the past, it’s important to take note of how you felt and any changes you noticed at the time so that you can identify an exacerbation and get the care you need more quickly in the future.

Preventing COPD Exacerbations

Because COPD exacerbations are often brought on by infection, one of the best things you can do to prevent an exacerbation is stay healthy. This involves regularly exercising, drinking water, eating nutritiously, getting enough sleep, washing your hands, and staying away from anyone who may be contagious. You should also follow any COPD management instructions from your doctor.

It’s also important to avoid anything that could aggravate your COPD, whether that means staying inside on especially cold days or during pollen season, distancing yourself from smokers, or taking care to not overexert yourself. Practicing yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises could also help you reduce stress, which could in turn lower your risk of an exacerbation.

Get Medical Care at Home for COPD Exacerbations

Once you’ve realized that you’re experiencing a COPD exacerbation, it’s important to seek medical care as soon as possible, since prompt treatment can prevent your symptoms from worsening. Unfortunately, leaving your home in the midst of an exacerbation can be risky, since cold temperatures and airborne irritants could make your symptoms worse. Even the routine task of driving yourself to a nearby immediate care clinic or emergency room could cause unnecessary stress and anxiety. And, sitting in a waiting room could expose you to harmful viruses and bacteria.

Updated senior flu

Luckily, DispatchHealth offers the ideal solution. We’re a leading mobile healthcare provider, and we’re pleased to provide exceptional in-home care for individuals experiencing a non-life-threatening COPD exacerbation. Our experienced team can evaluate your condition and administer any necessary treatments, all without you ever having to leave home. You can request care by phone, on our website, or using our mobile app. Once you’ve done so, you can relax in the comfort of your own home. Avoiding physical exertion and maintaining a calm demeanor can help you manage your symptoms until we arrive.

Best of all, our healthcare delivery services won’t break your budget—a house visit costs about the same as a visit to an immediate care clinic, and just a fraction of a visit to the emergency room. Plus, we accept most major insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid.

To learn more about the services that DispatchHealth provides to treat COPD exacerbations, contact us today. We look forward to providing you with the convenient care you deserve.

If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department.


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

  1. https://www.thoracic.org/patients/patient-resources/resources/copd-exacerbation-ecopd.pdf
  2. https://www.copd.com/copd-progression/copd-exacerbations/
  3. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000698.htm
The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.

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