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Understanding COPD Exacerbations

When dealing with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), certain flair ups akin to that of an asthma attack, can occur that can cause varying levels of stress to the body ranging from noisy heavy breathing to harm requiring hospitalization. These events are referred to medically as “exacerbations” to a pre-existing COPD ailment and are known to progress to occur more frequently as time goes on; the current average rate is about 3 episodes a year.[1] Furthermore, the severity of the event itself tends to escalate the longer it sustains its effect of the body as well, which is why a quick diagnosis and treatment of the situation plays a pivotal role in maintaining a safe life with COPD.COPD, COPD Exacerbations, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Exacerbation

How Can an Exacerbation Occur?

In order to fully understand how to prepare for an exacerbation, you have to first understand where they can come from in your body. Here are a few ways that these events are triggered[2]:

  • Respiratory infection
  • Viral infection
  • Bacterial Infection
  • Reaction to chemical toxins
  • Allergens through simple pollen
  • Harsh environment such as pollution and second hand smoke
  • Improper use of medication or assisting devices such as inhalers

Therefore, several measures can be applied to help avoid an exacerbation to your COPD. Obvious tips are to both practice general cleanliness including frequent washing of the hands with disinfectant soap and warm water as well as keeping away from crowded areas (and surprisingly kids!) when in a weakened condition. Don’t forget to exercise as simply staying active can be a big help. You can also take things a step further by securing a flu shot each year and discussing additional medications such as Pertussis, a vaccine typically used to assist with whooping cough. Adjusting your home to allow for a dehumidifier could also offer big time assistance with keeping your breathing atmosphere optimal for your condition. One of the most important and often overlooked ways to help your body fight off an exacerbation, however, is sleep. Resting up, drinking your fluids, and having your body in a state to succeed is vital.[3]

What are the Warning Signs of an Exacerbation?

As previously mentioned, symptoms tend to escalate quickly in the event of an exacerbation, so that is why identifying what exactly is going on early in the process could truly mean the difference between momentary discomfort and a stressful night in the ER (or even worse). Here are a few early warning signs to keep an eye on when dealing with COPD:[4]

  • Irregular breathing such as heavy wheezing, rattling, gurgling, etc.
  • A large build up of pus or mucus in your airways
  • Stressed breathing and odd feeling in your chest, neck, and/or throat
  • Trouble speaking
  • General Confusion
  • Lack of hunger
  • Belly Pain
  • Insomnia or lack of sleep
  • Grey or yellow skin coupled with a bluish tint around the lips.
  • Fingernail discoloration
  • Unusual phlegm that is either bloody or colored
  • Swollen limbs
  • Fever
  • Constant headaches

When your body experiences an exacerbation, it basically equates to an increased inflammation within your airflow that not only inhibits the way you successfully breathe in, but also dramatically impacts your ability to exhale dangerous gases too; physicians suggest, for example, that the headaches above are related to an increased amount of carbon dioxide within the body during a growing exacerbation.[5] It’s also why someone who is suffering an episode may feel as if they’ve just ran a marathon or lifted weights vigorously without even walking ten feet. If you are feeling any of these symptoms above, seek immediate assistance through 911 as again, the situation tends to escalate fast.

Additionally, it is important to understand that an exacerbation of COPD can also lead to further health complications outside of just your pre-existing disease. Since your breathing is severely hampered at this stage, depression has been known to set in as one’s “normal life” can feel like it is slipping away; it’s important to meet this head on and make necessary adjustments/ seek assistance to maintain a positive attitude, which will go a long way here. Outside of the standard mood swings and depression associated with failing health, the following complications have also been reported[6]:

  • Increased risk of heart attack
  • Severe bouts of cold and/or flu
  • Elevated levels of high blood pressure
  • Pulmonary Hypertension
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Increased potential of lung cancer (specifically in those with smoking history coupled alongside COPD)

[1] “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)”. Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. Retrieved 19 May 2014.

[2] http://www.healthline.com/health/copd/exacerbation-symptoms-and-warning-signs#see-a-doctor3

[3] https://www.copdfoundation.org/What-is-COPD/Living-with-COPD/Staying-Healthy-and-Avoiding-Exacerbations.aspx

[4] http://www.webmd.com/lung/10-signs-copd-exacerbation#1

[5] http://www.healthline.com/health/copd/exacerbation-symptoms-and-warning-signs#symptoms2

[6] http://www.healthline.com/health/copd/exacerbation-symptoms-and-warning-signs#complications5


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