When Symptoms Get Worse

When the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) get worse, it is important not to ignore them. Your goal is to keep your lungs working as well as possible. Talk with your health care provider about whether these steps can help you control COPD.

You can help control worsening symptoms of COPD when you are aware of the early warning signs of change. These can include more frequent symptoms or the onset of a new symptom. This could include shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing or mucus production.

Other warning signs that you may need additional treatment are:

  • Feeling more tired
  • Feeling ill
  • Having swollen ankles
  • Needing to sleep sitting up or with more pillows
  • Becoming forgetful, confused or sleepy
  • Slurring your speech
  • Gaining or losing weight unexpectedly


Your Next Steps

When you notice that your COPD is presenting different symptoms to you, the next step is figuring out ways to treat it. Talk with your health care provider about what is right for your condition.

You may have these symptoms, and your health care provider may have recommended these steps for improvement:

  • Mucus -- If you have more mucus or thicker or stickier mucus, your health care provider may suggest taking a mucolytic medicine to thin it or an expectorant to make it easier to cough out. Drinking at least 2 quarts of caffeine-free fluid daily may help. If you have an infection, sometimes indicated by yellow or green mucus, you may need an antibiotic
  • Cough -- If your cough gets worse, doesn’t bring up mucus, makes your airways spasm, or is hard to control, you may need to use an inhaled bronchodilator or inhaled steroid medicine
  • Wheezing -- You may have a medicine meant to help relieve wheezing. If you take it as directed and it doesn’t work, call your health care provider; for severe wheezing, get emergency help
  • Shortness of Breath -- Your health care provider may have you use a nebulizer or inhaled treatment or try breathing techniques; if you use oxygen treatment, he or she may suggest increasing how much you use; call your health care provider if your breathing does not improve


Have a Plan

Talk with your health care provider about how to handle these symptoms. The American Lung Association suggests asking your doctor to help you come up with a three-category plan. The plan would list symptoms and what you should do in these situations:

  • When you are doing well
  • When you are having a COPD flare-up
  • When you need immediate medical attention

The action plan calls these different categories green, yellow and red zones. By having a plan in place, you'll always know what to do. 

This material provides general information only. It should not be used in place of the advice, instructions, or treatment given by your doctor or other health care professional.