Your Breathe-Better Checklist for COPD Flares
Recognizing a COPD Flare
Though it’s not always possible to know what’s caused a flare, you can identify it by being aware of a few key signs, says Norman H. Edelman, MD, a senior medical adviser with the ALA. “There’s a sudden worsening in the ability to breathe — such as shortness of breath, wheezing, or shallow or rapid breathing — and it’s frequently accompanied by an increased cough and a change in sputum color,” he says. Sputum is the mucus coughed up from the airways.
Other early signs of a COPD flare may include:
COPD Flares: Seek Medical Help First
If you have any suspicion that you might be having a flare — even a mild one — talk to your doctor about it and have him or her weigh in on its severity. “When you have a COPD flare, unless your doctor has already given you specific advice about what to do, you should always call," Dr. Edelman says.
If you have a flare at night or can't reach your doctor, use prescribed medications, such as quick-acting inhalers or oral medications, Edelman says. But if these steps aren't effective, get medical care right away. “Dizziness and fingernails that are turning blue from a lack of oxygen are signs you should call 911 or go directly to your hospital ER,” he says.
Pay attention to these changes, and when you experience a flare, take time to rest and try breathing exercises. Although you may feel too anxious to stop what you’re doing and focus on your breathing, doing so brings measurable benefits. In a study published in the February 2014 issue ofRespiratory Care, people hospitalized with COPD who did breathing exercises reduced their anxiety and depression significantly, compared with those who didn’t do breathing exercises.
Breathing Exercises for Reducing COPD Symptoms
Breathing exercises should be part of your regular management regimen if you have advanced COPD, Edelman says. These breathing exercises help push "stale" air out of the lungs and allow fresh air and more oxygen to enter, according to the ALA. And they're only helpful during a flare if you practice them regularly — about 5 to 10 minutes a day when you're feeling well and not short of breath, the ALA says.
If you're having a flare and feeling anxious and short of breath, try the breathing exercises that you have already practiced. Your exercises may include these two particularly effective ones for COPD:
Pursed lip breathing: Inhale through your nose for 2 seconds, then purse your lips as if you were going to blow out a candle. Exhale for 4 seconds. Repeat as needed. This exercise is particularly helpful during a flare, according to the COPD Foundation.
Abdominal breathing: Place one hand on your chest and another on your belly. Inhale, focusing on expanding your belly outward. (The hand on your belly should rise while the hand on your chest doesn't move.) Then, slowly exhale through your mouth. Repeat as necessary.
“The most effective way to breathe through a COPD flare is with slow, even breaths, not short and huffy-puffy ones,” Edelman says. To ensure you’re doing all breathing exercises correctly, the COPD Foundation recommends that you get guidance from a respiratory health professional, such as your doctor, nurse, or a respiratory therapist.
Experiencing a COPD flare can be frightening, but with a plan in place, you’ll know how to handle it the next time it happens. If you feel unclear about any part of your COPD plan, talk to your doctor.
Additional reporting by Diana K.
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