Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or COPD is a group of long-term inflammatory lung conditions that make it hard to breathe and typically include emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Cigarette smoking is the most common cause of COPD, but this illness can develop after extended exposure to lung irritants, like chemicals or dust, or in some rare cases it can be genetic.

COPD is one of the most common chronic diseases seen in patients who need emergency care. More than 16 million people in the United States live with COPD, and COPD-related emergencies annually send about 873,000 people to the emergency department, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

COPD symptoms can be manageable with regular checkups and care at home that can include healthy behavior changes like quitting smoking, prescription medications or breathing devices. However, “flare ups” are common. When symptoms appear more suddenly than usual, or become severe or longer lasting, it may be necessary to get medical attention right away.     

Paying close attention to changes in typical symptoms and knowing when seek help could prevent a medical emergency. People with COPD can have a cough, chest tightness, wheezing or shortness of breath, and heavy amounts of mucus.

Call 911 or go to the closest emergency department if you experience:

  • Difficulty breathing or talking
  • Chest pains
  • Fever
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Fingernails that turn blue or gray (a sign of a low oxygen level in your blood)
  • Recommended treatment is not working, and symptoms are getting worse
  • Slurred speech, disorientation, confusion, dizziness
  • Sleepiness and difficulty awakening from sleep

Those with chronic conditions should work with a physician to create a plan to manage their illness that includes an emergency action plan with medication history, important phone numbers, and other information that can be critical to gather before an emergency occurs.

COPD may also increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, pneumonia, or other respiratory infections. Anyone with COPD should discuss with their doctor whether to get a flu shot and other common respiratory vaccines. Chronic illness like COPD increases the risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms. Emergency physicians encourage anyone managing a chronic condition to consider every available protection against getting sick, including a COVID-19 vaccine, especially during the pandemic.

Anyone who thinks they're having a medical emergency should not hesitate to seek care. Federal law ensures that anyone who comes to the emergency department is treated and stabilized, and that their insurance provides coverage based on symptoms, not a final diagnosis. 

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