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COPD Action Plan


If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), your usual shortness of breath could suddenly get worse. You may start coughing more and have more mucus. This flare-up is called a COPD exacerbation (say "ig-ZAS-ur-BAY-shun").

A lung infection or air pollution could set off an exacerbation. Sometimes it can happen after being around chemicals.

Work with your doctor to make a plan for dealing with an exacerbation. You can better manage it if you plan ahead.

How do you use a COPD action plan?

A COPD action plan is a written plan that tells you how to treat your COPD and what to do when your symptoms get worse. It helps you make quick decisions in an emergency. Your action plan has three zones based on your symptoms.

For each zone, ask your doctor what type—and what amount—of medicine you should take for your symptoms.

Green Zone: Feeling well

Your symptoms

  • Usual amount of coughing and mucus
  • Normal activities and good appetite
  • Sleeping well

What to do

  • Take daily COPD medicines.
  • Do normal activities and breathing exercises.
  • Continue other treatments, such as using oxygen, if needed.
  • Avoid triggers.

Yellow Zone: Flare-up

Your symptoms

  • More coughing or mucus than normal
  • New or worse trouble breathing
  • Less energy than usual
  • Quick-relief medicines needed more often
  • Fever, tight chest, or other symptoms
  • Trouble sleeping because of coughing or breathing problems

What to do

  • Take quick-relief and normal daily medicines.
  • Take oral corticosteroids, antibiotics, or both as prescribed.
  • Do pursed-lip breathing.
  • If you use oxygen, ask your doctor if you need to increase it.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms don't improve.

Red Zone: Get emergency care right away

Your symptoms

  • Very short of breath
  • Can't do activity
  • Fever, chills, chest pain, or other symptoms
  • Coughing up blood
  • Confused or sleepy
  • Can't sleep because of coughing or breathing problems

What to do

  • Call 911 or get medical care right away.
  • While getting help, follow any instructions your doctor recommended.

Contact information

Be sure your action plan includes this information.

Name of my doctor or clinic:

Phone number of my doctor or clinic:

Who to call in an emergency:

Emergency contact phone number:

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have severe trouble breathing.
  • You have severe chest pain.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worse shortness of breath.
  • You have new or worse chest pain.
  • You cough up blood.
  • You have a fever.
  • You have used your quick-relief medicine or followed your plan for what to do if your symptoms get worse, but you are still short of breath.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You are coughing more deeply or more often, especially if you notice more mucus or a change in the color of your mucus.
  • You have new or increased swelling in your legs or belly.
  • You have feelings of anxiety or depression.
  • You need to use your antibiotic or steroid pills.
  • You are not getting better as expected.

Related Information


Current as of: August 6, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.


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