5 Ways to Prevent COPD Exacerbation

A COPD exacerbation is a period of time when COPD symptoms worsen, often leading to hospitalization and sometimes premature death. According to CHEST, acute exacerbations of COPD occur more frequently in people with advanced disease. Additionally, disease flare-ups often contribute to a more rapid progression of lung function decline1 that is characteristic of COPD. The primary causes of COPD exacerbation are viral or bacterial infections and air pollution.2

Preventing an exacerbation before it happens will help reduce the number of hospitalizations and deaths associated with COPD. How can you do that? Reviewing the following 5 ways to prevent COPD exacerbation will get you started in the right direction:

  1. Indulge in frequent hand washing – Hand washing, when done correctly, can kill germs that lead to COPD exacerbation. Keep in mind however, that not all hand washing techniques are created equal. In order for hand washing to be effective, scrub your hands vigorously with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. Make sure you scrub all surfaces of your hands including between your fingers, your wrists, the backs of your hands and under your fingernails. If soap and water isn’t available use an alcohol–based hand sanitizer. Wash your hands frequently, especially before and after you eat, after using the restroom, after coughing, sneezing or wiping your nose with a tissue and when you notice your hands are visibly soiled.
  2. Don’t ignore your immunizations – The importance of immunizations in preventing infections that can lead to COPD exacerbation must not be overlooked. Each year, as soon as they become available, make sure you get a flu shot. In addition, pneumonia vaccines are recommended for all adults 65 years of age and older, or anyone between 2 and 64 years of age with a chronic health condition like COPD. Usually only one dose of the pneumonia vaccine is needed, but a second dose is recommended for people 65 years and older who got their first dose before they turned 65 and, if five or more years have passed since that they got their first dose.3
  3. Micro-manage your meds – Part of a good, preventative health program includes understanding and managing your medications. Treatment for COPD often includes daily maintenance medications that help reduce the risk of COPD exacerbation. It’s not uncommon for doctors to prescribe a combination of medications to accomplish this goal. That said, medications that you may see included in your COPD treatment plan include long-acting bronchodilator inhalers, corticosteroids, phosphodiesterase 4 (PDE4) inhibitors and antibiotics.
  4. Aim to eat right – Did you know that the foods you eat have a direct affect on your breathing? The American lung Association reports that the right mix of nutrients in your diet can help you breathe easier.4 Eating healthy foods can also help you fight off lung infections that may lead to COPD exacerbation.5 Remember too, variety is the spice of life, especially when it comes to your diet. Considering that the foods you eat contain three major sources of energy – carbohydrates, protein and fat – talking to a Registered Dietitian (RD) who specializes in COPD will help you find the right dietary balance.
  5. Take a walk in the park – Exercising regularly is one of the most important aspects of COPD management. The more you exercise, the better you’ll feel. Exercise improves your circulation and helps your body utilize oxygen more efficiently. It gives you more energy and, when done consistently, it decreases shortness of breath and other COPD symptoms. How often should you exercise? To achieve the maximum benefit from an exercise program, start slowly and work your way up to at least 20 to 30 minutes per session, at least 3 to 4 times a week.6 Remember, before embarking on any type of exercise program, to first check with your health care provider.


Author: Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN


1 Nathaniel Marchetti; Gerard J. Criner; Richard K. Albert. Preventing Acute Exacerbations and Hospital Admissions in COPD. Chest. 2013; 143(5):1444-1454.
2 Alberto Papi, Fabrizio Luppi, Francesca Franco, and Leonardo M. Fabbri “Pathophysiology of Exacerbations of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease”, Proceedings of the American Thoracic Society, Vol. 3, No. 3 (2006), pp. 245-251.
3 Department of Health and Human Services. Centers for Disease Control. Pneumoccoccal Polysaccharide Vaccine: What You Need to Know. Updated 2009.
4 The American lung Association. Living with COPD: Nutrition. 2013.
5 Cleveland Clinic Health System. Nutritional Guidelines for People With COPD. 2005 – 2013.
6 Cleveland Clinic Health System. COPD Exercise and Activity Guidelines. 1995-2013.

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