How to Prepare for Medical Emergencies and Hospital Visits if You Have COPD

How to Prepare for Medical Emergencies and Hospital Visits if You Have COPD


Consider this hypothetical scenario: you have a COPD exacerbation and your shortness of breath suddenly gets much worse than usual. You call your doctor to see what you should do, and she tells you to go to the hospital right away.


If this happened, would you be ready? Would you be able to quickly gather the documents, medical equipment, and other supplies that you need?


If your answer is no, or you're not sure, then you might have a serious need for an emergency action plan. Luckily, it doesn't take much time or effort to prepare for medical emergencies, and doing so could save your life in a critical situation.


To help you get started, we've created this guide explaining how to prepare for COPD medical emergencies and unexpected hospital visits. Throughout this post, we'll go though all the different components of a good emergency action plan and walk you through the steps to make one for yourself.


We'll also explain how to recognize a variety of different COPD-related emergencies and how to know what you should do when your symptoms get worse. Then, we'll teach you how to put together a variety of practical tools that can help you respond more quickly and efficiently during a medical emergency, including:

  • An emergency contact and medical info card
  • An emergency grab bag with essential documents and items
  • A personalized hospital care kit for basic comfort away from home


When you or someone you love has COPD, you never know when a medical emergency will strike. Whether it's because of an illness, exacerbation, or another complication, just about every person with COPD will—at some point or another—need to make a sudden visit to the hospital or emergency room.


That's why it's vital to be ready to spring into action whenever that time may come. Having a plan and a stash of supplies can make all the difference in the middle of a medical crisis, helping you to get to the hospital sooner and ensuring that you have everything you need once you are there.


Recognizing the Signs of an Emergency




The first step to handling a COPD-related medical emergency is recognizing that you have an emergency in the first place. In order to do so, you need to pay attention to your body and know how to identify the signs that you need immediate medical help.


COPD exacerbations are the most common reason for hospitalization and emergency room visits among people with COPD. Of course, not all exacerbations get that bad; some are mild enough to treat at home with medication and guidance from your doctor.



However, it's important to be aware that minor exacerbations can quickly get out of hand and become much more severe. If that happens, you might have to go to the emergency room or check into a hospital for more aggressive in-patient treatment.


That's why it's important to keep close tabs on your COPD symptoms from day to day so you can recognize any changes. If you notice your symptoms flare up and don't improve within a a couple days, that means you might need additional treatment to manage the exacerbation.


Major Signs of a COPD Exacerbation:

  • Worse than usual shortness of breath
  • Shortness of breath at rest
  • Coughing more than usual
  • Increase in sputum (mucus you cough up)
  • Change in the color of your mucus or sputum
  • Increased fatigue
  • Fever, shaking, or chills
  • Needing to use your rescue inhaler more often than usual


You should also have a COPD action plan that tells you exactly what to do whenever your symptoms get worse. It should tell you which medications to take, when you should call your doctor, and when you should call an ambulance or go to the emergency room.


If you cannot get over an exacerbation on your own, spending some time in the hospital is sometimes the only way to recover. If your symptoms get very severe or you experience breathlessness that won't go away, don't wait and seek medical care immediately.


Severe COPD Symptoms that Could Require Emergency Treatment:

  • Shortness of breath that is sudden or more severe than usual
  • Coughing up blood
  • New chest pain
  • Difficulty waking up
  • Severe restlessness or anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Extreme weakness or fatigue
  • Flu symptoms, including body ache, fever, and sore throat
  • Swelling in the legs



Hypoxia is another common COPD complication that should be treated as a medical emergency. It happens when your blood oxygen saturation falls to dangerously low levels, starving your body of oxygen and potentially causing life-threatening complications.


Severe hypoxia can be fatal if you don't get immediate treatment to increase the amount of oxygen in your blood. However, even mild hypoxia can lead to serious problems like high blood pressure and cognitive decline.


Your risk for hypoxia is higher if you if you already suffer from chronic hypoxemia (blood oxygen levels that are lower than what is considered healthy). It can also cause acute respiratory failure, a life-threatening condition that can occur very suddenly, especially during severe COPD exacerbations.


There are two main types of respiratory failure that occur in people with COPD: one is the result of low blood oxygen levels (hypoxemic respiratory failure), while one is the result of too much carbon dioxide building up in your blood (hypercapnic respiratory failure). If not treated quickly, both severe hypoxia and acute respiratory failure can quickly result in severe organ damage and death.





Signs of Severe Hypoxia or Respiratory Failure

  • Rapid breathing
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath at rest
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Inability to breathe or catch your breath
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Inability to communicate
  • Profuse sweating
  • Extreme sleepiness and fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Blue or gray tinted skin, especially on fingertips, toes, or lips


Despite advances in COPD treatment and hospital care, people still die from treatable causes just because they don't make it to the hospital quickly enough. So if something feels wrong, don't be afraid to seek help, and never ignore the warning signs of a potential medical emergency.


How to Prepare for an Emergency


Planning ahead for a medical emergency is all about making it as simple as possible for you or someone else to respond to and get help fast. That means being able to identify the emergency immediately, promptly call for help, and quickly gather all the essential supplies and documents you need.


In the following sections, we'll show you some practical tools and strategies doing each of these things, and how to put them all together into an effective emergency action plan. That way, when emergency strikes, you will have everything you need to handle it confidently, efficiently, and with the least amount of stress.


Have a COPD Action Plan






A COPD action plan is essentially the instructions for your COPD treatment written down in a way that is easy to follow and simple to understand. If you don't have a written COPD action plan yet, ask your doctor to make one for you; you can even use a handy pre-made template like this one from the American Lung Association (PDF link).


Having a COPD action plan is important because it tells you you exactly how to treat your COPD symptoms and flare-ups in the most effective way. It also tells you how to recognize the signs that you need to seek additional medical help, either by calling your doctor or going to the emergency room.


The instructions and descriptions a COPD action plan serve as a guide to monitoring your symptoms, managing them better, and recognizing when they've gotten out of your control. In this way, a good COPD action plan can both help prevent medical emergencies and help you respond to them appropriately when they occur.


For more information, check out or guide explaining COPD action plans and how to use them from our Respiratory Resource Center.


Have a Trustworthy Mode of Communication






When you're in an emergency, a phone might be your only way to connect to the outside world. In moments like those, it's absolutely vital to have a reliable mobile phone you can use to call for help.


If you have COPD and don't have a mode of communication you can count on, it's time to get one fast. You should also make sure that you know how to use your phone and and that you feel comfortable making calls.


In case you can't use your usual phone for some reason, you should also keep something like a spare, charged cell phone battery or a separate emergency phone on hand. You can also use your car to charge up your phone battery in a pinch as long as you have the right kind of adapter for your car.


Be Prepared for Environmental Disasters




If you live in a disaster-prone area (or even if you don't), it's a good idea to plan ahead for environmental emergencies like extreme weather and natural disasters. These kinds of events, which can leave you stranded without power or a means to get supplies, are particularly dangerous for people with chronic diseases like COPD.


One of the most important things to do is make sure that you have a way to call for help if the power ever goes out. Even just an old phone with a fully charged battery can be a lifesaver in an emergency.


If you rely on an oxygen concentrator for supplemental oxygen therapy, then you should also have a backup oxygen supply that doesn't rely on electricity to work. However, you should inspect any oxygen tanks you keep in storage regularly, since some (especially liquid oxygen cylinders) can lose oxygen over time.



The American Red Cross also suggests keeping a home emergency survival kit, which includes:

  • A first aid kit
  • A flashlight & extra batteries
  • A battery-powered radio & extra batteries
  • A multipurpose tool
  • An emergency document folder (we'll show you how to make your own in a section just below)
  • Sanitation and hygiene products
  • A 7-day supply of medication and medical equipment
  • A cell phone and charger
  • An emergency blanket
  • Extra cash
  • Maps of your local area
  • In the case of a very serious disaster, a 2-week supply of water and non-perishable food.




Here are some more tips for preparing for power outages and other environmental emergencies that could affect your ability to get medical care:

  • Keep a backup source of electricity, such as a gas-powered generator or a backup home battery bank.
  • Ask your doctor if he can give you an extra supply of medicine to keep in case there is an emergency that leaves you unable to access or refill your prescriptions.
  • Work out a plan with neighbors, family,or friends to ensure that someone can check up on you during a power outage or weather emergency. Let them know if there are any specific supplies or help you will need (e.g. assistance setting up your generator safely).
  • If you use an oxygen concentrator or any other electricity-powered medical device, let your local power company know. Then, if there is a power outage, they might be able to prioritize your area as they work to get the power back on.
  • Make sure your cell phone (and your emergency backup phone) is able to receive Wireless Emergency Alerts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
  • Don't wait until the last minute if you are told you need to evacuate your home; leave and get to a safe place as early as you can.
  • Anxiety and panic can make your breathlessness worse, but having a plan and supply kit ready can do wonders for helping you stay calm and collected during an environmental emergency.


Make an Emergency Contact List





The very first thing that you have to have to respond to a medical emergency is basic information about how to get the medical help you need. You should always call 911 for an immediate, life-threatening emergency, but it's also important to have an emergency contact list on hand.


Your emergency contact list should include:

  • The contact information for your local hospital plus directions for how to get there
  • The contact information for your primary care doctor and any other medical specialists that treat you (e.g. your pulmonologist or respiratoy therapist)
  • The contact information for the person (or people) close to you who should be notified in the case of an emergency
  • The contact information for each person or place should include:
    • Full name of the person or place (For doctors, include the name of the medical facility they work in.)
    • Full address
    • Phone number{s) including area code


Having this list on hand will ensure that you can contact the hospital and get there quickly in an urgent situation. It also makes it easier for anyone who helps you in an emergency to take action and transport you to the best place for treatment.




Your emergency contact list can also help emergency and hospital personnel contact anyone they need to—such as your family or your doctor—about your condition and care. It could even help you get better treatment by allowing medical personnel to get medical records and other vital information more quickly.


Prepare an Emergency Info Folder






The purpose of an emergency info folder is to keep important documents like medical records, insurance information, and more together in an easy-to-grab package. That way, when a medical emergency strikes, you'll have everything that you and the hospital staff might need to give you the best possible care.


Essentially, your emergency grab bag should contain everything a doctor would need to get up-to-date on your health condition and treatment. It should also include any documents the hospital needs for insurance, financial, or administrative reasons, including personal ID, health insurance information, and some means of financing or payment.


Here is a list of important records you should keep in your emergency info folder:

  • A copy of your emergency contact card
  • A copy of your health insurance card (and any other important policy information)
  • Personal identification (e.g. driver's license or passport)
  • A list of all medications and supplements you take, including:
    • The name of each medication and supplement
    • Your regular dosage for each medication
    • How frequently you take each medication
    • The name and contact info for the doctor who prescribed these medications
  • Important medical info and documents, including:
    • A brief description of all health conditions you have
    • A list of any food or medicine allergies you have
    • Documentation of major treatments, operations, and noteworthy test results (e.g. x-rays, lab results, surgery reports, etc.)
    • If applicable, also include any relevant documentation regarding your legal guardianship, power of attorney, or legal caretaker(s)
  • A form of payment, such as: a credit card, check book, HSA card or FSA card


Make a Personalized Emergency Hospital Care Kit






Having to stay in a hospital is stressful and uncomfortable, and it can be even worse when you end up there unexpectedly. In order to keep yourself comfortable and sane, it's important to make sure you have some personal comforts to get you by.


The purpose of a hospital care kit is to act as a “go-bag” containing your emergency info folder plus anything else you might need to get by once you're in your hospital room. It's a quick way for you or a loved to grab all the basic supplies and entertainment you might need without any searching or delay.


Think of your hospital care kit like a mini travel bag that you can fill with the same types of things you might pack for a weekend away from home. In particular, consider items from the following major categories: toiletries & hygiene, clothes, medical equipment, and entertainment, and personal items that bring you comfort.


Start by choosing a bag that's small enough to grab and store easily, but big enough to hold a couple days worth of supplies (a duffel bag or gym bag will do). In order to conserve space, try to pack small, compact items; you could buy travel-sized toiletries, for example, or parse full-sized products into small baggies and containers.






Don't worry about packing for a long hospital stay; after all, you never really know how long it will be before you go home. It's better to keep your bag compact and pack just enough supplies to last until you can send someone out to fetch more.


To help you decide what to prioritize, take a moment to think about what it's like to be stuck in a hospital room, and then try to think of what little things might make it a little bit comfortable and easier to bear. The ideas that come to mind can help you narrow down your options and figure out what's most important to you.


Here are some general items you might consider including in your emergency hospital care kit:


Your emergency info folder:

  • Put your emergency info folder in the same bag as your hospital care kit so everything you need for a hospital visit will all be in one place
  • Make sure to keep the info up to date with any changes in your health, including changes in medication, dosage, or other treatments you use


A set of basic toiletries and personal hygiene necessities, including:

  • Small bottles of shampoo, conditioner, & body wash
  • A toothbrush, toothpaste, & mouthwash
  • Deodorant
  • A couple packages of travel tissues
  • A small bottle of lotion
  • Face cleansing wipes
  • Chapstick
  • Hand sanitizer






Comfortable, compact clothing, including:

  • A couple of comfortable t-shirts
  • A couple of comfortable pajama bottoms
  • A few pairs of socks (ideally with non-slip bottoms)
  • A few pairs of underwear
  • A couple of comfortable bras (if applicable)
  • A pair of slip-resistant flip flops
  • Slippers



Entertainment and things to keep you busy, including:

  • Books & magazines
  • A compact game or set of cards
  • Music & headphones
  • Coloring books
  • Paper and something to write or draw with
  • Simple hobby supplies (e.g. for knitting, drawing, writing, etc.)
  • Some spending cash (for vending machines, newpapers, etc.)
  • A prepaid phone card (some hospitals do not allow cell phones)




Supplemental oxygen supplies (if you use oxygen), including:

  • Oxygen mask or nasal cannula
  • Humidifier bottle
  • Any lubricants or lotions you normally use for comfort


Other personal items you might want to include:

  • A notebook and pen for jotting down questions and notes
  • An eye mask & earplugs for sleeping
  • An extra phone charger & wall plug
  • A soft blanket or bathrobe
  • A refillable water bottle
  • Photos, keepsakes, or other comfort items
  • Sanitizing wipes
  • Dry shampoo (for when bathing is difficult)
  • Hair ties
  • Tweezers
  • A shaving razor
  • Nail clippers
  • Hair styling products and cosmetics


You should also keep in mind that, even

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