Coping With COPD and Cold Weather
With contributions from Russell Winwood.
Changes in the weather are notorious for interrupting breathing patterns, especially when you live with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Heat, humidity, dry air, wind, rain, cold — every climate characteristic has the potential to trigger symptoms, and in the worst cases, dangerous exacerbations.
The keys to a safe and healthy winter are avoiding COPD pneumonia and counteracting the cold. First learn why and how the cold weather can harm your lungs, and then take some proven steps to reduce winter’s nasty effects and stay in control of your COPD.
How COPD Symptoms Can Change in Extreme Weather
Temperatures below freezing and above 90 degrees tend to bother most COPD sufferers in a number of ways. When the mercury dips, it’s not uncommon to notice shortness of breath, more phlegm, wheezing, and fatigue.
Chilly weather isn’t always nice and straightforward. In fact, cold weather can come in different forms, and each brings its own challenges for COPD:
Most people with COPD respond poorly to high humidity. A bit of moisture in the air can help lubricate the airways, but too much will make the air too dense to breathe easily.
Winter humidity is typically much more manageable than summer humidity (which can take the form of smog), but living in a damp, cool climate can also cause trouble for those with COPD.
It doesn’t have the weight and resistance of humid air, but cold, dry air can irritate your airways and interfere with your breathing, too. With each breath, the tissues that line your nose and throat dry out, and will probably provoke more coughing fits and uncomfortable scratchy feelings.
Breathing through your nose helps to warm and moisten the air before it reaches your lungs; if you tend to breathe through your mouth, you may find your symptoms escalate quickly.
For some people with COPD, changes in the barometric pressure can affect symptoms just as much as changes in temperature. However, not every patient reacts to air pressure in the same way: while many find that low-pressure systems make it hard to breathe (a consequence of less oxygen in the air), others struggle more with high-pressure weather. In any case, the barometric pressure outside can certainly affect the passage of air into your body.
Cold wind is certainly uncomfortable, but it can be especially challenging to handle when you have breathing issues. COPD attacks your lung efficiency, and any extra pressure can put a major strain on your ability to take in air.
A cold wind blowing in your face disrupts the natural flow of air into your nose and mouth, and you may find yourself struggling for each breath. Walking against the wind also brings physical resistance, which means you’ll be exerting yourself more with each step and draining your energy.
Tips for Coping With COPD and Cold Weather
COPD and weather during the winter is not easy to navigate, but your daily choices can take some of the pressure off. Luckily, there are several ways to keep warm, stay healthy, and avoid exacerbations all season long.
Have a COPD Action Plan
The most important preparation before cold weather hits is to ensure you have a COPD action plan in place. This plan is done in consultation with your doctor. A COPD action plan is your “go to” resource if you are hit with an exacerbation.
Your doctor will advise you on the course of action to take when this happens. Make sure you have the relevant contact phone numbers of your support network easily accessible in case you become ill. Your support network is a crucial part of your COPD action plan.
Monitoring the weather is also an important part of being prepared. Knowing when you can plan to leave your home or when the weather forecast suggests staying indoors is advisable. Be aware of your surrounds outside the home. Do you live in an area where people still use woodfire heating? If so, how do you best avoid the smoke from these fires?
When it comes to looking after your health and making preparations for extreme weather conditions the better you prepare the better, you’ll be prepared. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other patients and ask for their tips for keeping well in cold weather. Quite often the best tips come from patients who have found what works for them.