Acute exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

1st December, 2020 • 2 min read

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.

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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.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.