How to Avoid Common COPD Triggers

Learn what can make COPD symptoms worse, and how to recognize COPD exacerbations.

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Medically reviewed in September 2021

Often referred to as COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a chronic respiratory illness that makes it difficult for a person to breathe and makes it more difficult for the lungs to pass oxygen into the bloodstream.

There is no cure for COPD, but there are ways to treat the condition and lessen the impact that the condition has on a person’s life. Smoking is the number one risk factor for COPD and quitting smoking should be a top priority when treating COPD.

Treatment typically involves a multi-faceted approach that includes medications, making lifestyle changes and taking steps to keep symptoms under control, including avoiding things that can make symptoms worse.

Factors that worsen COPD symptoms are often called triggers. If you or a loved one has COPD, identifying triggers is important to effectively managing and treating the condition, and avoiding those triggers can help to reduce the impact that COPD has on a person’s life.

Avoid infections
The majority of COPD exacerbations are caused by bacterial or viral infections—such as strep throat, the common cold or the flu. Patients should do what they can to avoid coming into contact with infectious agents, including getting an annual flu shot, washing hands and avoiding people who are sick. Since nutrition and sleep are both important to immune function, it is important to follow an eating plan that gives your body adequate amounts of fluids, fiber and nutrients, and to get adequate amounts of sleep. Nutrition and sleep are both things that you can discuss with your healthcare provider, and should be a focus of your COPD treatment plan.

Avoid outdoor triggers
Irritants in the air can exacerbate COPD symptoms. People with COPD should avoid environments where they are exposed to pollution, smog, exhaust from vehicles, secondhand smoke, smoke from campfires and chemical fumes. They should also pay attention to the weather—sudden changes in weather can exacerbate symptoms, as can air that is cold and dry, and air that is hot and humid. Strong winds and high altitudes can also cause COPD exacerbations. For some people, COPD is triggered by allergies, and they should avoid pollen, mold and other allergens.

Avoid indoor triggers
COPD triggers can also be found indoors. As mentioned above, secondhand smoke needs to be avoided. Other culprits include smoke from fireplaces and wood stoves, fumes from household products, and certain beauty products (especially perfumes or anything that contains fragrances). Indoor allergens, such as pet dander, dust mites and mildew, can also exacerbate symptoms.

Monitor symptoms
One of the best ways to identify what exacerbates your or your loved one’s COPD is to monitor your symptoms closely, and keep notes about how symptoms vary from day to day. This can also provide useful information to your healthcare provider.

Recognize the symptoms of a COPD exacerbation
Closely monitoring symptoms is also important to recognizing a COPD exacerbation. Also called a flare-up, a COPD exacerbation is a worsening of a person’s usual COPD symptoms. Signs of an exacerbation can include:

  • Becoming more short of breath
  • Wheezing more severely than normal
  • Producing more mucus
  • Mucus that changes in color (clear to yellow, green, brown or red)
  • Feeling fatigued
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Having a fever
  • Swelling of the feet and/or ankles
  • Lower oxygen levels (for patients who check their oxygen levels)

Having a headache in the morning, having difficulty waking up from sleep, difficulty sleeping and confusion can be signs of high carbon dioxide levels in the body, which is a potential complication of COPD and requires immediate medical attention.

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