Now that summer has been wrapped up and we are in the middle of autumn, meaning winter isn’t that far away. When diagnosed with a chronic respiratory disease such as COPD, weather conditions can have a huge impact on your symptoms, as well as the way you manage/treat those symptoms.
Patients, especially those recently diagnosed, are often unaware of the impact both cold and hot weather can have on their felt symptoms. As well as the similarities and differences between the affects of cold and hot weather in regard to their symptoms.
Weather changes are apart of the many factors that can trigger and exacerbate COPD symptoms, specifically, shortness of breath, cough, mucus production, as well as fatigue. Cold air, warm air, humidity, and wind can all exacerbate these symptoms.
No matter the weather conditions, you need to be extremely vigilant about how specific weather conditions affect your COPD symptoms. While taking the necessary actions to combat the affects of weather. If this is a concern of yours, which it should be, you have come to the right place.
Signs of Exacerbated COPD Symptoms Due to Weather
A COPD flare up, also known as an exacerbation, is when your current symptoms get worse, or new ones develop. Which can be directly triggered by cold, hot, or humid weather.
No matter if the weather conditions are cold, or hot and humid, it's important for you to understand the warning signs of a COPD exacerbation that can be triggered by cold, hot and humid weather. As a frequent occurrence of COPD exacerbations can cause your disease to progress faster.
This way you can take the necessary actions to minimize their affects. Later on in the post we will discuss the numerous techniques that you can apply to help keep flare ups to a minimum, during both the summer and the winter months.
Early warning signs of a COPD exacerbation (flare up), according to the COPD Foundation:
- Increased Levels of Wheezing
- Excessive Coughing
- Worsening Shortness of Breath
- Increase in Mucus Production
- Change in Mucus Color; Yellow, Brown, Bloody
- Swelling in Your Feet or Ankles
Let's now look at exactly how weather can affect your COPD and its related symptoms, as well as actionable techniques you can use to combat the affects of weather on your COPD.
COPD and Cold Weather: How it Affects Your Symptoms
Before heading out into cold and windy weather, you need to first understand that the functionality of your heart and lungs are closely related.
Specifically, the job of your lungs is to deliver oxygen to your bloodstream, while you heart pumps blood to deliver oxygen to the vital organs throughout your body.
With chronic exposure to low temperatures, dramatic changes can occur to your respiratory system. As the temperature gets colder, your blood vessels will begin to narrow.
Causing blood flow to be restricted, leading to oxygen deprivation in your heart. As a result your heart is forced to pump exceedingly harder, leading to an increase in blood pressure.
Both cold air and strong wind are well known COPD triggers for worsening overall symptoms. If you are out and about on a cold and windy day, you are forced to walk against the wind.
Requiring additional energy to combat the increased resistance, worsening feelings of shortness of breath and fatigue. Additionally, exposure to frigid temperatures can lead to worsening levels of fatigue.
How to Actionably Combat the Effects of Cold & Windy Weather with COPD
- Wear a Scarf or Face Mask: Doing so will cover both your nose and mouth. It’s important for you to ensure that you are inhaling through your nose to warm and moisturize inhaled air before it enters your lungs. Helping to further prevent the worsening of shortness of breath.
- Avoid Going Out in Extremely Frigid Temperatures: If temperatures are below freezing, you should avoid going out in all and stay inside to enjoy the warmth of your home to prevent a flare up of symptoms.
- Oxygen Tubing Placement is Important: Are you prescribed medical grade oxygen? Whether that be with oxygen tanks, or a portable oxygen concentrator. Instead of leaving your oxygen tubing exposed to cold temperatures, keep the delivery of medical oxygen as warm as possible by threading your oxygen hose underneath your coat.
- Do NOT Use a Fireplace or Stove to Burn Wood: Although this is an effective and affordable option for heating your home, the smoke produced can build-up in your home and exacerbate your shortness of breath.
- Quit Smoking & Avoid it at All Costs: Smoking is the leading cause of COPD, and continuing to smoke following a diagnosis can accelerate symptoms. Smoking combined with cold weather, shortness of breath increases exponentially. If you still smoke, quitting is the most effective way for slowing the progression of COPD.
- Exercise Indoors: Exercise is vital aspect in COPD management, but cold weather can make it difficult to follow your regular exercise routine. Don’t put your exercise routine on hold, instead, exercise in the comfort and warmth of your own home.
- Harness the Power of a Rescue Inhaler: A rescue inhaler contains a bronchodilator, which opens up and relaxes your swollen airways to allow easier airflow, making it easier for you to breathe. Before heading out into cold temperatures, take a preventative dose of your rescue inhaler.
Additional Cold Weather Complications with COPD
With an onset of frigid temperatures, not only do you have to worry about symptomatic flare ups. You also need to take proactive measures to protect yourself from the common cold or flu, which are especially prominent during winter.
Why do I need to take extra protective measures against the common cold or flu? Being diagnosed with a chronic respiratory disease such as COPD, you are at an increased risk of getting sick.
Plus becoming ill with a cold or the flu can be extremely damaging to your COPD ridden health, typically in the form of exacerbated COPD symptoms.
Especially since the common symptoms of a cold, or the flu are similar to those of COPD; excess mucus (phlegm, sputum) production, frequent cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue.
It’s also important for us to mention that the excess mucus produced due to COPD as well as a cold, or flu, is a breading ground for bacterial infections like pneumonia.
Both COPD and pneumonia can lead to total respiratory failure on their own. When COPD and pneumonia occur simultaneously the severity and risk factor is greatly increased.
Preventative Measures for a Cold, the Flu, or Pneumonia
Although there isn’t a specific vaccine for the common cold, there are a few preventative measures you can take to reduce your chances of contracting a cold.
We will also discuss what you can do to minimize your chances of becoming ill with the flu or pneumonia:
- Get a Yearly Flu Shot: You should at the minimum get a yearly flu shot. To have the best chances of avoiding the flu is to get a flu shot every six months according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Wash Your Hands…Frequently: Germs surround us no matter where we go and what we touch. Minimize germ infections by washing your hands frequently throughout the day. To further encourage this, you should also carry a small personal bottle of hand sanitizer in your purse, pocket, or handbag, for quick hand sanitization on the go.
- Avoid Crowded Areas: During peak cold and flu season, you should do your best to avoid crowded destinations such as malls, shopping centers, and buses where germs can be easily spread. If you must visit a highly trafficked location, go during non peak hours to avoid the crowds.
- Stay Clear of Sick Friends & Family Members: Your friends and family members should be the ones that care the most about your well being with COPD. You should avoid close contact such as hugging, or kissing until they are feeling better to avoid being contaminated.
Now that you are aware of the impact cold weather can have on your COPD symptoms, we’ll now discuss how hot and humid weather can directly affect your COPD.
Hot and Humid Weather: How it Affects Your COPD
Summertime used to mean laying out by the pool and catching some good ol' vitamin D, while sipping an ice cold drink and reading your favorite book. But things suddenly changed with the diagnosis of COPD.
When summertime rolls around, you need to be prepared for the impacts the warmer weather will have on your COPD symptoms.
Summer weather can often impact you differently than that of colder weather, but both do share similar disease impacts to a certain degree.
Due to the increased temperature, your body requires additional energy to cool you down and maintain your normal body temperature. Forcing your body to work even harder, directly impacting the severity of shortness of breath.
The majority of patients experience flared symptoms during days of high heat, humidity, or smog. Although there is a lucky portion of the COPD community that actually experiences improved COPD symptoms during times of high humidity.
Once temperatures exceed 90 degrees is when your symptoms can become impacted. Hot weather can lead to inflamed and constricted airways, resulting in what’s known as a bronchospasm.
Humidity levels over 40%, both indoors and out, can also severely affect your symptoms, specifically phlegm production. The additional increase of mucus production, causes blockage in your lungs making it harder for you to breathe.
Why Your COPD Symptoms are Affected by Humidity &
If you live in a humid climate, the ideal humidity level for COPD is patients is no more than 40%. By avoiding humidity levels above 40% both inside and outside of your home will help you avoid the following symptomatic triggers:
- Dust Mites: You may be surprised to learn that when humidity levels exceed 50%, dust mite populations flourish. And if you don’t already know, dust ranks high on the list of common COPD triggers. So do your best to minimize the presence of dust mites.
- Mold: Humid air offers an ideal breeding ground for mold. Exposure to mold with COPD will result in irritation in your throat and lungs, causing further wheezing and congestion.
- Exertion: With humidity comes a higher water content in the air you breathe, making it denser and thus creating additional resistance in the delivery of airflow to your lungs. With continual airflow resistance, each breath will increasingly drain your overall energy, only adding to your feelings of fatigue.
With the arrival of warmer and humid weather, you need to do everything you can to keep your body cool and to avoid COPD exacerbations. Let’s now look at the symptoms of COPD that are affected by hot and humid weather.
Symptoms Affected by Hot, Humid Weather
Summer can be an uncomfortable time when diagnosed with COPD, specifically due to the fact that high temperatures and humidity levels can worsen your COPD symptoms. You are likely to experience heightened levels of shortness of breath and bronchospasms, when exposed to heat and humidity.
Let’s take a closer look into the specific symptoms impacted by the heat and humidity further.
Worsening Levels of Shortness of Breath
Shortness of breath, breathlessness, dyspnea, no matter which term you use, you are well aware this is the most frequently experienced COPD symptom. You may be wondering, how come my levels of shortness of breath are much greater when temperatures increase?
To better understand this, you must first know how your body reacts to stress.
When you can grasp the concept of how your body reacts to stress with COPD, you will be able to better understand how the temperature affects your ability to breathe.
Your body is constantly working to maintain a normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
But with the presence of hot temperatures, your entire body goes into stress mode. Because exposure to summer temperatures forces your body to utilize additional energy to maintain your average body temperature.
This additional energy requirement increases your body’s demand for oxygen. Which is added on top of the already increased energy needs imposed by COPD to breathe, and other daily activities.
So to answer the question above of how come my levels of shortness of breath are much greater when temperatures increase?
Simply put, when you are exposed to hot weather your body is kicking energy usage into overdrive to maintain your body temperature, increasing the demand for oxygen. As a result, greater levels of shortness of breath can be experienced.
Additionally, depending on where in the country you are located, hot temperatures can also mean higher levels of humidity. What does this mean for you? High levels of humidity can also cause worsening shortness of breath.
If you have had some experience with COPD during the summer, then you know just how difficult it is to breathe when you walk outside and inhale the warm, dry air. But why does this occur?
To put it easiest, when you inhale warm, dry air, your already inflamed and irritated airways are worsened, resulting in what’s known as a bronchospasm.
In the event of a bronchospasm, your airway muscles shrink in size, ultimately causing your airways to narrow. Making it even harder for air to enter and leave your lungs, consequently worsening shortness of breath and your overall ability to breathe.
Preventing COPD Flare Ups Due to Hot Weather
During the summer you have to worry about hot and humid weather, plus smog and air pollution affecting your ability to breathe with COPD.
Although this can be a difficult time of year, there are preventative measures that you can take when it is hot and humid out, or the air quality is poor, to help protect your COPD ridden lungs from further irritation in the form of an exacerbation.
- Stay Hydrated by Drinking Plenty of Water: Don’t let your hydration fall to the waist side. Keep yourself hydrated with cold water, often times you may have to increase your fluid intake on hot and humid days. Staying hydrated will also help to break up and thin mucus, so it’s easier to cough up and reduce airway blockage.
- Stay Cool and Completely Avoid the Heat: When temperatures are excessively high, avoid the sun in all by staying inside and enjoying your air conditioned home. If your house doesn’t have A/C, head to places with air conditioning such as your local library, mall, or supermarket. Additionally, you could take a cold shower or bath.
- Avoid Strenuous Activities: Performing strenuous activity will lead to increased heart rate, breathing rate, and overall body temperature. Help your body better tolerate warmer weather and stay clear of it’s COPD worsening affects by avoiding strenuous activities. But don't let the hot weather prevent you from exercising. Instead opt to exercise inside your home or wait until temperatures cool down to exercise outside.
- Check the Daily Air Quality, Weather, and Humidity Levels: Before leaving the house, you should first check the daily weather, air quality index, and humidity (humidex) reports. You should plan all your daily activities during times of moderate weather conditions, to avoid exacerbating levels of shortness of breath. Furthermore, checking daily pollen counts can also help protect you from worsening COPD symptoms.
- Understand the Warning Signs of a Flare Up (Exacerbation): Educate yourself on the signs of COPD flare ups (exacerbations). Doing so will prepare you in the event a flare up arises, you will know to stop what you are doing, and techniques you can use to minimize the flare up.
- Wear Proper Clothing: When out in the sun stay as cool as possible by wearing loose fitting, light colored clothing, and a hat. This will allow airflow to seamlessly flow through your clothes to provide a cooling breeze. While a hat will protect your face from the sun.
- Protect Yourself with Sunscreen: Protect your skin from the damaging effects of the sun by wearing sunscreen. Experiencing a sunburn makes it extremely difficult for your body to stay cool, resulting in worsening levels of shortness of breath.
- Keep Windows and Doors Closed: Keep your house cool while stopping airborne pollutants from entering your home by closing your windows and doors during the day. At night, if temperatures are cooler and air pollution is low, you can open up your windows to allow a fresh breeze of air to flow through your home.
- Follow Regular Treatment Adherence: While worrying about managing the impacts imposed on your COPD by hot and humid temperatures, it can be easy to forget about inhalers, oxygen, and other medications. But it’s vital for you to take all your prescriptions as directed. If you are prescribed medical oxygen, you need to follow the prescribed use of your portable oxygen concentrator or oxygen tanks. With warmer weather your oxygen prescription may need to be adjusted, but you should only do so after consulting with your doctor.
Is Moving Across the Country the Answer?
Have you, or someone you know with COPD uprooted their life to a less humid climate in hopes of avoiding seasonal exacerbations and improved COPD symptoms?
There are countless stories of patients moving to parts of the country where humidity is minimal. Previous suggestions by doctors were to move to the western part of the US, where humidity is scarce.
However, it’s now known that the COPD weather connection is very individualized.
Meaning one person can move to a western climate and experience reduced symptoms, while another patient could move and experience the same level of symptoms or worse with no improvements.
You may often differ from other patients and vice versa, as you may enjoy reduced humidity while others enjoy a higher presence of humidity.
If you are considering relocating due to your COPD symptoms, in search of the best climate for COPD, you should visit and stay in the place you are considering during all seasons to see if the move will improve symptoms year around.
Now that you are aware of the similarities as well as the differences cold and hot temperatures can have on your COPD related symptoms. It’s now up to you to take an actionable approach of implementing the symptom reducing techniques, when faced with cold or hot weather.
Things such as getting a yearly flu shot, quitting smoking, staying inside during extremely hot and cold days, wearing weather appropriate clothing, staying hydrated, and following prescriptions are just some of the actionable techniques you can apply to your life to help soften the symptomatic affects of cold and hot temperatures on your COPD.
Do you have additional tips for managing your COPD symptoms during the summer and winter months? Or have you recently moved across the country in hopes of minimizing your seasonal exacerbations?
Let us know by leaving a comment below with the techniques you use as well as the results you have experienced. Stay tuned to the comments, as a patient may suggest a life changing tip you may have never heard of before! Click the image below to download your very own copy of Weather and COPD: How to Combat the Devastating Consequences.