5 Common COPD Triggers and How to Avoid Them


If you have COPD, you know that certain things can trigger an increase in your COPD symptoms. Sometimes, those COPD triggers can even cause a COPD exacerbation, wherein your symptoms become more severe. COPD exacerbations, also called flare-ups, can be dangerous, so it is essential to do whatever you can to avoid them. 

Below are the five most common COPD triggers for most patients. Keep in mind that every patient is different and you may have additional triggers for your symptoms. Pay attention to any time that your symptoms increase so that you can do your best to avoid any triggers you encounter. 

COPD Triggers

  • Smoke
    Tobacco smoke is the cause of up to 90% of all COPD cases, and it is also one of the top triggers for worsening COPD symptoms or COPD exacerbations. If you have COPD and you still smoke, it is essential that you quit smoking right away. Smoking damages the lungs and airways significantly, causing narrowing of the airways, damage to the alveoli (air sacs) in your lungs and inflammation throughout the respiratory system. Continuing to smoke will not only cause worsening symptoms, but it will cause your COPD to progress faster. If you do not smoke, or have already quit smoking, it is still important to avoid secondhand smoke and smoky areas to protect your respiratory system. Do not sit near anyone else who is smoking, and do not spend time in a smoker’s home or car. Other kinds of smoke, like that from forest fires, campfires or even fireplaces, can be COPD triggers as well. Do your best to avoid this kind of smoke, too, and if you cannot avoid it entirely, wear a mask or cover your face to protect your lungs as much as possible.
  • Extreme Weather Conditions
    Whether it is a very hot day, a very cold day or a day with high humidity, any extreme weather can be a COPD trigger. Even if you are inside, extreme conditions can cause a spike in your COPD symptoms and can even trigger a COPD exacerbation. As such, it is important to limit your time outdoors if the temperature soars or drops significantly and instead stay inside in a temperature-controlled environment. Use a dehumidifier if you live in or visit a humid climate and find the humidity is triggering your symptoms. If you need to leave the house when conditions are extreme, do your best to take things as easy as possible so you are not putting additional stress on your respiratory system. On cold winter days, use a scarf to cover your mouth and nose and reduce the likelihood of triggering your symptoms.
  • Air Pollution
    Unfortunately for all of us, air pollution is an increasing concern around the world, but it is a particular concern to people with COPD and one of the top COPD triggers. Several studies have shown that air pollution increases the risk of COPD exacerbations, which can be life-threatening. These risks tend to be compounded in urban areas, where pollution is more common, and in areas where polluted air becomes trapped. Even getting stuck in traffic can pose problems because of the vehicle exhaust. If you live in an area that experiences high levels of air pollution, it is important that you protect yourself. Check daily air quality reports and, when the air quality is poor, avoid spending time outdoors. Invest in air filters for your home and your vehicle that filter out as much pollution as possible, and change them regularly. If you must be outside when air pollution is high, wear a mask to reduce the impact of pollution on your respiratory system, and try not to exert yourself more than necessary. Only exercise indoors when air pollution is at its worst. In addition, it is advisable to keep an eye on ozone levels, as there is also some evidence that the ozone can be a COPD trigger as well. 
  • Lung Irritants
    Also topping the list of COPD triggers are lung irritants, which can include things like dust, animal dander, pollen, fumes and even strong fragrances. These irritants can trigger your COPD symptoms and, with extended exposure, could cause a COPD exacerbation. One of the greatest problems with lung irritants is that you are not always aware of when you will encounter them.
    Spending time in public spaces means potentially encountering some of these types of irritants. However, there are some things you can do. Ensure that you keep your home clean and tidy, but only clean your home with gentle, natural cleansers that do not create irritating fumes. Clean with plenty of ventilation and breaks, and consider wearing a mask as well. Even with these precautions, you may find that you are unable to clean your home yourself as a result of the dust and other irritants that are kicked up. If that is the case, you may need to ask a loved one to help or hire a cleaning service. If there are fumes produced from cleaning, cooking or anything else, consider leaving the house when the fumes are at their worst and make sure you always use adequate ventilation. Before you go to someone else’s home, find out how COPD-friendly their environment is by asking about pets, strong fragrances or any harsh cleaners that may have been used before agreeing to spend significant time there. If the irritants are experienced at someone else’s home, outdoors or in a public space, pay attention to your symptoms and leave promptly if your symptoms begin to worsen.
  • Respiratory Infections
    Last, but certainly not least, respiratory infections are among the top COPD triggers. People with COPD already have damage to their lungs, and the symptoms of COPD, like wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath, are made worse during a respiratory infection. Because of this, respiratory infections are quite dangerous for people with COPD as they so often lead to COPD exacerbations. Moreover, people with COPD are more prone to developing pneumonia, which could also be life-threatening.

    In order to protect yourself from developing a respiratory infection, it is critical that you do what you can to stay healthy. First and foremost, practice excellent hand hygiene at all times. Wash your hands frequently, particularly when you are out in public or return home from having been out, to avoid catching a cold or flu. Avoid highly populated areas at times when many people are ill, and wear a mask when you must be out and about. Make sure that friends and loved ones know that they should not visit or spend time with you when they are sick. Eat a healthy diet, drink lots of water, get moderate exercise as directed by your health care providers and get plenty of rest and sleep. If you start to feel run down, take the time to rest and recover so your body can heal. If you do develop a cold or the flu, see your doctor right away so you can get treated properly and avoid a COPD exacerbation. 

What You Can Do to Protect Yourself from COPD Triggers

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Though there are certain triggers that are hard to completely avoid, like air pollution and extreme weather, there are ways you can protect yourself from COPD triggers. Follow these tips, and you can do your best to stay as healthy as possible and minimize your exposure to COPD triggers.

  • Follow doctor’s orders carefully, take your medications and complete any treatments in a timely fashion to maintain your respiratory health
  • Get your flu and pneumonia vaccines as recommended
  • Have masks with you at all times, in case you need them
  • Practice excellent hygiene, including keeping your home clean and tidy and washing your hands carefully and regularly
  • Keep essential equipment, like masks, nasal cannulas, nebulizers and inhalers, extremely clean
  • Change your air filters in your home and car regularly
  • Always wear a scarf outdoors when it is very cold or windy
  • Maintain awareness of the weather and air quality daily so you can plan your outings and any required gear accordingly
  • Make sure your home is well ventilated, particularly any time fumes may be produced
  • Know your environment and have a humidifier or dehumidifier on hand, depending on your local climate
  • Tell your friends and loved ones not to smoke around you or where any scented products

Unfortunately, COPD exacerbations are part of having COPD. It is important to be aware of the signs of an exacerbation, as well as knowing what your particular COPD triggers are so that you can avoid them. It may not always be possible to completely avoid every COPD trigger, but awareness of what your triggers are and when you might encounter them can help. Talk to your doctor for additional information about what you can do to avoid your particular COPD triggers and ask what you should do if you need to manage a COPD exacerbation













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