Common Triggers of COPD Symptoms

10 Tips for Avoiding Exacerbations

Certain environmental triggers can cause the flare-up of symptoms in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). While some of these triggers are difficult to avoid, others are easily prevented with a few simple precautions.

Dog sleeping in front of fireplace
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A COPD trigger is anything that causes you to have a flare-up of symptoms such as shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, or fatigue. While we often think of triggers as particles we breathe in, they may also include changes in temperature and environment.

Since COPD symptoms can vary by type, frequency, and severity, you need to identify the triggers that affect you as an individual. By doing so, you can avoid exacerbations, retain lung function, and enjoy a better quality of life irrespective of the stage of your disease.

Common Indoor Triggers

Broadly speaking, indoor triggers are not so different from outdoor ones insofar as they cause symptoms by irritating the lungs. The big difference, of course, is that you can control your indoor environment better than your outdoor ones. This includes the quality of your air and the ventilation of your living spaces.

When putting together your prevention strategy, aim to identify which indoor substances and conditions can trigger a flare-up. Here are some of the more common examples:

  • Tobacco, pipe, or cigar smoke
  • Smoke from fireplaces or wood stoves
  • Perfumes, colognes, hairsprays, or other scented products
  • Paint fumes
  • Cooking odors
  • Cleaning products or solvents
  • Pet hair or dander
  • Dust, mold, or mildew
  • Dust mites
  • Flu, colds, or other transmitted upper respiratory infections

Common Outdoor Triggers

Outdoor triggers require more care and preparation as you can't always avoid them. You not only need to identify which substances or conditions bother you, you have to find ways to either avoid or minimize exposure without entirely isolating yourself. Some of the more common outdoor triggers include:

10 Ways to Avoid Common COPD Triggers

Identifying your COPD triggers is only half the battle. The next step is to formulate a strategy that allows you to get on your life while avoiding the substances or conditions that can hurt you.

You don't need to turn your life upside down to do this or buy expensive equipment to hermetically seal you off from the environment. All you need to do is follow 10 simple tips:

  1. Monitor weather reports and stay indoors when the air quality is poor.
  2. Maintain proper ventilation by opening doors and windows or running an air conditioner in the fan mode. Avoid extra cold air-conditioned air.
  3. Get a humidifier to reduce dust and pollen in the air. Commercial air purifiers may also be helpful if you are vulnerable to airborne triggers.
  4. Vacuum and dust daily to cut down on pet dander and dust mites.
  5. Use natural cleaning products which have a less harsh chemical smell.
  6. Avoid scented products and ask family and friends to avoid wearing them.
  7. Avoid secondhand smoke. Even third-hand smoke should be considered unsafe.
  8. Wear a scarf around your face in cold or gusty weather.
  9. Avoid using your fireplace or wood-burning stove. If you can't, stand well away from them and ensure proper ventilation. The same applies to outdoor barbecues.
  10. Use caution at higher altitudes. You may need to speak with your healthcare provider about using oxygen when traveling to higher elevations.

Most importantly, never hesitate to call your healthcare provider at the first sign of an upper respiratory infection, including a cold or flu. If you have COPD, it's important to catch these early as they are the number one cause of an exacerbation.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sama SR, Kriebel D, Gore RJ, DeVries R, Rosiello R. Environmental triggers of COPD symptoms: a case cross-over study. BMJ Open Respir Res. 2017;4(1):e000179. doi:10.1136/bmjresp-2017-000179

  2. British Lung Foundation. What causes poor indoor air quality?

  3. D'amato G, Cecchi L, D'amato M, Annesi-maesano I. Climate change and respiratory diseases. Eur Respir Rev. 2014;23(132):161-9. doi:10.1183/09059180.00001714

By Deborah Leader, RN
 Deborah Leader RN, PHN, is a registered nurse and medical writer who focuses on COPD.