Do you have a COPD action plan?

COPD, short for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. More than 16 million Americans are living with COPD, and millions more have it but don’t know it. Signs of COPD include ongoing cough, shortness of breath, lots of mucus, and chest tightness — but everyone will experience this disease differently. 

It is recommended that patients and physicians/healthcare providers complete a COPD action plan together. An action plan is a written agreement that spells out how to handle your symptoms as your condition changes. It should be tailored specifically to your experience with COPD, covering a full range of events, from when you feel good to if you need emergency medical care.

Recommendations for your COPD action plan

Your doctor, nurse, and healthcare team can help you fill in your COPD action plan (usually a one or two-page sheet). It’s essential to review it periodically and after a flare-up. Make sure you throw away old COPD action plans to avoid confusion. 

There are a variety of action plan templates available on the internet: 

  • This COPD action plan, created by the American Lung Association, is free and simple to use. 
  • In addition to their clear and concise COPD action plan, Lung Foundation Australia includes an informative second page that reminds you to know your baseline and your medications (with images of common types of inhalers).

Both action plans feature a green, yellow, and red system for evaluating COPD symptoms. Here’s what these categories typically mean:

Green zone: This means that you are doing well today and that you have a usual amount of phlegm and breathlessness. You can do your usual activities. The action here is to take your daily medicines, use oxygen as prescribed, continue regular exercise/diet plan, and avoid cigarette smoke and inhaled irritants at all times.

Yellow zone: This means that you are having a bad day or a COPD flare (also called an exacerbation). Symptoms include: more breathlessness than usual, less energy for daily activities, more coughing than usual, needing to use a quick relief inhaler/nebulizer more often, and increased or thicker phlegm/mucus. Actions include taking your daily medication, using a quick relief inhaler at a rate decided by you and your doctor, and monitoring your COPD symptoms closely. Call your healthcare team immediately if you have taken extra medications but are not getting better.

Red zone: Your COPD symptoms have become severe and you might be worried. This could mean that you are experiencing difficulty sleeping because of breathing, severe shortness of breath even at rest, fever or shaking chills, coughing up blood, chest pain, and confusion. This means that you need urgent medical care. Call 911, and while getting help, immediately do whatever you and your doctor have mapped out. 

Having an action plan is critical, but before you start, you also need to understand your COPD baseline. Think about how breathless you feel at rest, your usual amount of phlegm and the color of it, how far you can walk, your daily activities, etc. Knowing your COPD medicines and inhalers (and how to properly use them) is also important.

Always take your COPD action plan with you to doctor appointments or if you are admitted to the hospital. Ask your health professional to review your COPD action plan every six months or if you have a flare-up, as your medicines may change. 

New studies are testing the safety and efficacy of investigational treatments for COPD, and people living with COPD are needed to help move this science forward.