An exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is when someone with COPD has a sudden worsening of their symptoms, such as breathlessness, coughing and coughing up phlegm (sputum). It’s also known as a COPD flare-up.
Your COPD symptoms can suddenly get worse for many reasons, including if you have a chest infection, are exposed to lots of pollution or if your COPD isn't well controlled.
How is a COPD flare-up diagnosed?
You should see a doctor or go to the emergency department immediately if your COPD symptoms seem to be getting worse. A doctor will usually be able to diagnose a flare-up based on your symptoms, previous history of COPD and a physical examination.
Sometimes, you may need some tests, including:
- measurement of the amount of oxygen in your blood using a probe placed on your finger
- chest X-ray
- blood test
- electrocardiogram (ECG)
Your doctor may also send a sample of your phlegm to a laboratory for tests.
How to treat a COPD flare-up
If you have a flare-up of COPD, a doctor may give you treatments to take or use at home, but if the flare-up is really bad, you may be admitted to hospital for treatment.
Treatment may include:
- oxygen to help your breathing
- antibiotics – if your doctor thinks you may have a bacterial infection in your lungs
- inhaled medications that help open your airways
- steroid tablets
You can reduce the risk of a future flare-up by not smoking (read more about how to stop smoking if you currently smoke), making sure you take your COPD medications as directed by your doctor and having regular check-ups to make sure your COPD is well controlled.
You should also have the recommended flu and pneumococcal vaccinations to help reduce your risk of a chest infection.