Understanding COPD Exacerbation: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive respiratory condition characterized by persistent lung inflammation and airflow limitation. COPD exacerbation refers to a sudden worsening of symptoms. It often requires immediate medical attention and can be a distressing experience for individuals with COPD. These outbreaks can lead to severe coughing and shortness of breath, retention of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, and even acute respiratory failure.

In this article, we will explore the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of COPD exacerbation.

Causes of COPD Exacerbation

Several factors can create an increased risk for COPD exacerbations.


Respiratory infections, particularly bacterial and viral infections, are the most common cause of COPD exacerbations. Cold and flu season poses a higher risk for people with COPD, so prompt treatment of respiratory infections is essential. Otherwise, the infection leads to systemic inflammation, airway obstruction, and the other adverse effects of COPD exacerbation.

Environmental factors

Exposure to pollutants such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, and occupational hazards can contribute to exacerbations. If you have COPD, you should avoid these triggers to minimize the risk of worsening symptoms.

Medication non-compliance

Failure to properly use prescribed medications, particularly bronchodilators and inhaled corticosteroids, can increase the likelihood of exacerbations.

Other medical conditions

Coexisting medical conditions such as chronic bronchitis, congestive heart failure, myocardial infarction, and pulmonary hypertension also contribute to COPD exacerbations.

Symptoms of COPD Exacerbation

Exacerbation frequency varies, but between 30% and 50% of patients with COPD undergo at least one exacerbation per year. The symptoms of COPD exacerbations can be characterized as more severe and intense forms of common COPD symptoms.

be characterized as more severe and intense forms of common COPD symptoms.

  • Shortness of breath. A sudden increase in breathlessness or find it difficult to catch their breath.
  • Increased coughing. A persistent and intensified cough is common.
  • Wheezing. The narrowing of airways can cause wheezing and indicate an impending exacerbation.
  • Chest tightness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Change in sputum production and color. The production of purulent sputum, which is thicker and yellow or green in color, may indicate exacerbation. In severe cases, sputum can cause airway obstruction.
  • Other symptoms. Exacerbations can also be accompanied by fever, swollen ankles, and confusion, particularly in severe cases.

Diagnosis of COPD Exacerbation

Providers commonly diagnose mild exacerbations when increases in regular inhaled medications are needed, moderate exacerbation if steroids or antibiotics are required, and severe exacerbations when the patient needs hospital admission. Acute exacerbation occurs when there is a sudden worsening of symptoms that goes on for several days. To reach proper diagnosis, providers at Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health might use any of the following tools.

  • Physical examination. Healthcare providers will assess the individual’s symptoms, lung sounds, and overall condition to determine the severity of the exacerbation.
  • Pulmonary function tests. Spirometry and other lung function tests help evaluate lung capacity and airflow limitation. These tests can help assess the extent of exacerbation and monitor treatment response.
  • Chest X-rays. X-rays are used to rule out other potential causes of symptoms and evaluate the presence of complications such as pneumonia or pneumothorax.
  • Arterial blood gas analysis. Blood gas analysis measures oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood, providing information about the severity of respiratory failure.

Treatment of COPD Exacerbation

The treatment approach for COPD exacerbation aims to alleviate symptoms, improve lung function, and prevent complications. Depending on the severity of the exacerbation, doctors at Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health might prescribe any of these treatments.

  • Oxygen therapy. Supplemental oxygen may be provided to ensure adequate oxygenation and relieve breathlessness.
  • Inhaled bronchodilators, such as short-acting beta-agonists and anticholinergics, help relax airway muscles, improve airflow, and reduce symptoms.
  • Oral corticosteroids, such as prednisone, and inhaled corticosteroids are commonly used to reduce airway inflammation and speed up symptom relief. Inhalants prescribed for COPD are often delivered through handheld devices called metered dose inhalers (MDIs).
  • If a bacterial infection is suspected or confirmed, doctors can use antibiotic therapy to target the specific pathogen and prevent further complications.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation. Pulmonary rehabilitation programs offer comprehensive support, including exercise training, education, and counseling, to improve respiratory health and quality of life.

Prevention of COPD Exacerbation

It can be difficult to prevent COPD exacerbations entirely, but measures can help reduce their frequency and avoid severe symptoms.

Annual flu shots and pneumonia vaccines are recommended for individuals with COPD to protect against respiratory viruses. Another key to managing COPD and preventing exacerbations is adhering to the prescribed treatment regimen, including medications and inhalers.

Anyone with COPD should minimize exposure to environmental irritants, such as cigarette smoke and air pollution.

Finally, routine follow-ups allow healthcare providers to monitor lung function, adjust treatment plans, and provide guidance on managing COPD effectively.

Getting Help

If individuals with COPD experience worsening symptoms, it is critical to seek medical attention promptly. Early intervention can help prevent life-threatening exacerbations and improve outcomes.

COPD exacerbations can significantly damage the lives of individuals with this chronic condition. It sometimes takes a month or longer to recover from COPD exacerbation. Understanding the causes, recognizing the symptoms, obtaining a timely diagnosis, and adhering to treatment regimens can all help people to manage exacerbations effectively.

Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health can help individuals with COPD reach a better quality of life and minimize the impact of exacerbations. Our Pulmonology and Sleep Disorders team provides consultative, diagnostic and therapeutic services for the full spectrum of pulmonary diseases, disorders of breathing and sleep disorders. Contact us today to schedule an appointment by calling 1-813-788-6540, or request an appointment online.

Meet Dr. Joseph Hubaykah

Dr. Hubaykah, a pulmonologist at Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health, is passionate about helping patients live happy and productive lives. After completing an internship/residency at Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore, he performed a fellowship in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Saint Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. Married with four children, he enjoys being with his family and “dabbling” with chess in his free time.


Pulmonology & Sleep Disorders

Recommended Articles

Pulmonology & Sleep Disorders

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an incurable illness. People with COPD eventually experience breathing problems caused by reduced airflow in the lungs. Other conditions that affect the lungs fall under the umbrella term COPD, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Medical experts agree that environmental factors like cigarette smoke and air pollution play a serious […]

Pulmonology & Sleep Disorders

Why Am I Wheezing?

Joseph Hubaykah, MD

Have you ever experienced a high-pitched, whistling sound while breathing in and out? It can be alarming and uncomfortable, leaving you wondering: “Why am I wheezing?” Wheezing is typically caused by inflammation that narrows or partially blocks airways, leading to lack of airflow during breathing. The resulting sound is usually a high-pitched whistling noise. It […]
Skip to content