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Managing long-term lung problems (COPD): when to seek help

It’s important to know how to spot the signs of a flare up early and get help as soon as possible before your symptoms get worse.

Signs of a flare up

  • You’re more breathless and have difficulty breathing
  • You are coughing more and have more mucus than usual
  • The mucus you cough up changes from yellow to green or brown and becomes stickier or thicker.
  • There are streaks of blood in your mucus (this could be serious and shouldn’t be ignored – see your doctor ASAP)
  • Your chest feels tight or you start wheezing (a high-pitched whistling sound when you breathe)
  • You need to use your reliever medication more often than you usually do
  • You have a fever.

See your GP as soon as you can if you notice any of the above. Being proactive and getting help at the first sign of a problem can help keep you out of hospital, especially if your lung problems are severe.

You should see your GP when:

  • you first suspect there’s a problem with your breathing
  • you decide to give up smoking
  • your symptoms get worse and you feel unwell
  • you’re worried about the impact COPD is having on your life and it’s getting you down
  • you’re unsure about any aspect of your treatment
  • you need help to correctly take your inhaler medications
  • you have any other concerns about your physical, mental or emotional health.

Make sure you understand the advice your GP is giving you—ask them to clarify or explain more simply if you are unsure.

Call 000 for an ambulance if:

  • you are having difficulty breathing
  • you’re so short of breath that you can’t talk and/or walk
  • you’re having difficulty sleeping because of shortness of breath
  • your lips or fingernails turn grey or blue
  • your heart starts to beat very rapidly or irregularly
  • your medications don’t help for very long or don’t help at all
  • you’re having bad chest pain.

Coughing up mucus with blood is a serious warning sign. The most common causes of coughing up blood are infections of the airways or the lungs (bronchitis, bronchiectasis, pneumonia), or cancer of the airways (bronchogenic carcinoma). If you cough up a lot of blood, or cough up blood and experience severe shortness of breath, call triple zero (000) right away.

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