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Managing COPD Triggers

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic inflammatory lung condition that results in inhibited airflow from the lungs. COPD is caused by long-term exposure to irritating particulate matter or gasses, most commonly cigarette smoke. Individuals with COPD are at greater risk of developing other health conditions, such as lung cancer and heart disease.

COPD flare-ups occur when symptoms worsen or new symptoms develop. COPD flare-ups are one of the biggest reasons individuals with the condition are hospitalized or become disabled. With proper management, you can manage your COPD symptoms and reduce your risk of flare-ups.

COPD Symptoms

COPD symptoms don't usually appear until significant lung damage has occurred. They typically worsen over time, especially if exposure to cigarette smoke continues. Symptoms of COPD include shortness of breath, especially during physical activities, chest tightness, a blue tint to the lips and fingernails beds (cyanosis), frequent respiratory infections, and the need to clear your throat first thing in the morning because there is excess mucus in your lungs. A chronic cough that may produce mucus (sputum) may also occur. The mucus may be green, yellow, or clear. Other symptoms of COPD include unintentional weight loss, a lack of energy, and swelling in your legs, ankles, and feet.

Individuals with COPD are likely to experience flare-ups or exacerbations where symptoms worsen or new symptoms occur. Flare-ups last for at least several days or weeks.

Identifying Triggers

A number of things can trigger COPD symptoms or cause them to become worse. These things include extreme weather, inhaled irritants, and other illnesses and infections. When you experience new or worsening symptoms, it's important to try to identify the trigger. Keeping a symptom diary may be helpful with this endeavor. Once you identify your triggers, you can begin to take steps to avoid them.

Managing COPD Triggers

There are many ways in which you can manage COPD triggers and help prevent flare-ups.

Stop Smoking

Cigarette smoke is the most common cause of COPD, and breathing in tobacco smoke can worsen existing symptoms. Over time, smoking narrows the air passages in the lungs, causes inflammation, and destroys the lung's air sacs. For someone with COPD, smoking can increase the risk of developing lung infections, irritate the airways, and speed up the progression of the disease.

The most important thing you can do to help manage your COPD is to stop smoking. Stopping smoking is the only way to prevent your COPD symptoms from worsening.

Quitting smoking is challenging, and it may seem especially difficult if you've tried to quit before without success. Talk to your doctor about medication and nicotine replacement products that might help and how to handle relapses. Your doctor may also be aware of support groups that might be beneficial in the process. It's also important to avoid secondhand smoke whenever you can.

Air Pollution

Pollutants, such as chimney smoke, dust, car fumes, and pollen can irritate the lungs and airways. In fact, research shows that air pollution can lead to sudden COPD flare-ups and increases the risk of complications and death.

You can check daily air quality forecasts to help decrease your exposure to air pollution. When it's possible, spend limited time outdoors when air quality is poor. Avoid rush-hour traffic whenever you can.

High ozone levels may also exacerbate COPD symptoms. Ozone levels tend to rise during the afternoon, so try to plan outdoor activities in the morning hours when you can.

Dust and Fumes

In a 2015 research study involving 167 individuals with COPD, more than half of the participants stated that specific household chores and chemicals worsened their symptoms. These triggers included perfumes, wood smoke, cleaning products, dusting, sweeping, and vacuuming, and scented products, such as hair products, candles, and bug sprays. It's suggested that individuals with COPD should keep the area well-ventilated, take regular breaks, and consider wearing a protective mask when they clean.


One research study shows that low temperatures and high humidity are a trigger for COPD symptoms. The researchers recommend that those with COPD keep the indoor temperature above 64.8 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity level below 70%. You can buy a dehumidifier to help control humidity levels in your home.

Additionally, if you have COPD, you should limit your time outdoors when the weather is very cold, hot, or humid. If you need to go out in the cold weather, covering your mouth and nose with a scarf or cold-air mask may be helpful.

Respiratory Infections

COPD damages your lungs and increases your risk of developing respiratory infections, such as the flu, cold, and pneumonia. If you get a lung infection, it's also more likely to become severe and lead to complications. Respiratory infections can also lead to COPD flare-ups.

It's recommended that individuals with COPD receive yearly flu vaccinations as well as a vaccination against pneumococcal diseases. Additionally, staying away from people with respiratory infections, washing your hands frequently, and having a good hygiene routine can help reduce your risk of developing respiratory infections.

Warning Signs of COPD Flare-Ups

Recognizing a flare-up is important because it requires prompt treatment. Some signs that you're experiencing a COPD flare-up include a change in the amount, consistency, or color of your mucus, swelling in your legs, feet, or ankles, increased wheezing or coughing, fever, increased shortness of breath, and needing to use medication more frequently in order to treat your symptoms. If you think you're having a flare-up, contact your physician or seek medical attention at the hospital.

COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung condition that makes breathing more difficult. Proper treatment can help you effectively manage your symptoms. Knowing and avoiding your triggers can help you avoid exacerbations and prevent complications.

The content on this page is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Patients should not use the information presented on this page for diagnosing a health-related issue or disease. Before taking any medication or supplements, patients should always consult a physician or qualified healthcare professional for medical advice or information about whether a drug is safe, appropriate or effective.