Spotting Signs of COPD Complications Can Help Prevent an Emergency

WASHINGTON, D.C.—November is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Awareness Month and recognizing when the symptoms of this common chronic condition become an emergency can save a life, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP).

“COPD is one of the most common chronic conditions that emergency physicians see in patients who come to the emergency department,” said Gillian Schmitz, MD, FACEP, president of ACEP. “It is important for people who live with COPD and their caregivers to be able to identify the signs of a COPD-related emergency and know when to go to the emergency department.”

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 chemicals, dust, or other lung irritants, and in some cases it can be genetic.

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). People with COPD can have a cough, chest tightness, wheezing or shortness of breath, and heavy amounts of mucus.

Prompt attention to changes in typical symptoms can help prevent an emergency. Call 911 or go to the closest emergency department for:

  • 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, or symptoms are getting worse
  • Slurred speech, disorientation, confusion, dizziness
  • Sleepiness and difficulty arousing

Those with COPD should work with their physician to create a disease management plan 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. Chronic illness like COPD can increase the risk of respiratory illness and severe COVID-19 symptoms.

“Anyone with COPD, or any chronic condition, should consider every available protection against getting sick, especially while we are in a pandemic,” said Dr. Schmitz. “That includes a COVID-19 vaccine and a flu shot.”

The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) is the national medical society representing emergency medicine. Through continuing education, research, public education, and advocacy, ACEP advances emergency care on behalf of its 40,000 emergency physician members, and the more than 150 million people they treat on an annual basis. For more information, visit and

Contact: Steve Arnoff | | Twitter @EmergencyDocs

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