If you have COPD, then you know that your lungs are particularly sensitive to the environment and the quality of the air you breathe. Even minor irritants like dust, smog, or cold air can worsen your symptoms and make it even more difficult to breathe.
The cold weather and harsh, dry air is irritating to anyone's respiratory system, but it can cause debilitating symptoms for people with weakened and sensitive lungs. That's why the winter months tend to be particularly challenging for people with COPD.
Cold weather and COPD has been a topic of interest to researchers for some time, and many studies have proven that winter weather can significantly worsen COPD symptoms. In fact, studies show a very strong link between extended periods of cold weather and increased hospitalizations for people with COPD.
Because of this, doctors and health organizations like the Lung Institute urge people with COPD and other respiratory conditions to be especially cautious in cold weather. It's important to protect yourself and prepare yourself for the winter to prevent dangerous and even deadly COPD exacerbations.
If you're heading into the winter months and want to know how the weather will affect your COPD, then this article is for you. In the following sections, we'll help you understand why cold weather tends to make COPD worse and give you a variety of tips to help you better manage your disease this winter.
How Cold Weather Affects Your Respiratory System
Although most people have experienced coughing or inflamed airways in cold weather, it's easy to underestimate how severely the cold air can affect your respiratory tract. According to the Lung Institute, cold air can have an “extreme” effect on your lungs and “cause dramatic changes to the respiratory system.”
One of the most immediately noticeable changes is narrowed airways that restrict airflow and make it difficult to breathe. This can be dangerous for people with severe COPD and trigger bouts of serious breathlessness, coughing, and wheezing.
Another way cold weather affects your body is by triggering a sudden increase in breathing rate followed by a sudden drop in breathing rate when you get cold. This effect is a major cause of cold-related deaths in the elderly and can happen even when the weather is only mildly cold, in temperatures as high as forty degrees Fahrenheit.
Another effect of cold weather is an increase in blood pressure, which is hard on your heart and lungs. This happens when extremely cold air causes your blood vessels to narrow, which forces your heart to work harder to circulate blood and oxygen throughout your body.
In most healthy people, these changes only cause minor symptoms and discomfort. But for people with COPD and other serious conditions, these respiratory changes that happen in response to cold air can cause serious problems and even be life-threatening.
However, it's not just the temperature that causes increased respiratory strain in the winter. Cold air also happens to be drier than warm air because it can't hold as much moisture. This can cause humidity to drop far below the ideal level.
Dry air is generally more difficult to breathe, especially for people with COPD and other respiratory conditions that make their airways sensitive to irritation. Cold air dries out and irritates your airways, causing airway constriction and inflammation that makes it difficult to breathe.
Cold, dry air also tends to increase mucus production, which can worsen coughing and breathlessness in people with COPD. The density of the air also plays a role; cold air is denser than warm air, which means cold air creates more resistance in your airways and makes it harder to breathe.
Other Winter Hazards
Another major problem many COPD patients have during the winter is getting enough physical activity. Having to stay indoors can disrupt your usual exercise routine and make it easy to get out of the habit of being active.
The wintertime is also the peak season for colds, the flu, and other contagious illnesses. Cold weather is also a friendly environment for bacteria that cause respiratory infections and exacerbations.
Since most COPD exacerbations are caused by contagious illnesses and infections, it's particularly important for people with the disease to avoid getting sick. Combined with all the other complications that cold air can cause, contracting any kind of respiratory illness puts you at an extremely elevated risk for serious and even life-threatening exacerbations.
But even though the wintertime can be dangerous for people with COPD, there are plenty of things you can do to protect yourself and your lungs from the hazards of the cold air. There's no reason to worry if you prepare and take the right precautions.
In the next sections we'll show you all the steps you can take this winter season to stay healthy and keep your COPD symptoms under control. Continue reading for a plethora of practical tips and advice for staying warm, breathing easier, and avoiding worsened symptoms and exacerbations this year.
How to Protect Yourself from Cold Weather
Breathing Techniques for Cold Weather
If you have COPD, you've probably noticed that it's harder to control your breathing when the weather is cold. All it takes is a sudden breath of cold air to shock your respiratory system and cause you to lose your breath.
This makes it more difficult for people with COPD to breathe normally and catch their breath in the cold winter air. However, if you practice proper breathing techniques you can reduce the shock of the cold air on your lungs and get your breathlessness under control.
The pursed lips breathing technique is recommended for any situation when you find it difficult to breathe, but it can be particularly helpful in the cold. The technique is simple: make sure you breathe in through your nose for a couple of seconds count, and then exhale slowly for twice as many seconds while pursing your lips together (as if you were blowing a kiss).
Breathing in through your nose protects your lungs because it gives the cold air time to warm up slightly and absorb moisture it as it travels through your nasal passages. If you breathe in through your mouth, the cold, dry air goes straight to your lungs and causes much more irritation.
It's a good idea to practice the pursed lips breathing technique at home when you have full control of your breathing and your symptoms aren't acting up. That way it will feel more natural when you use it in a breathing crisis, and it will be easier to get your breathing back under control.
There are a variety of other breathing techniques you can use to control your breathing whenever cold air or anything else triggers a bout of breathlessness or coughing. Visit The Lung Institute here to learn more about effective breathing exercises and techniques.
Cover Up Your Nose and Mouth
If you have to be out in the cold, there are a couple of things you can do to make the air you breathe less harsh. In addition to wearing warm clothes and a coat, you can also wrap a scarf around your nose and mouth.
This warms up the air before it reaches your nostrils and is a great way to protect your lungs and make the harsh air easier to breathe. Wearing a scarf over your face also traps the moisture from your breath, which helps humidify the air slightly before you breathe it in.
Another option is to get a cold-weather mask, like a CT Mask, designed for people with respiratory illnesses like COPD. Like a scarf, CT masks trap the warmth and moisture from your breath when you exhale in order to warm and humidify the next breath of air you breathe in.
CT masks are reusable, washable, and made from soft, flexible materials for comfort. Although more pricey than a scarf, CT masks are often more comfortable, more effective, and more convenient for keeping your lungs warm when you go outside.
Cover Your Oxygen Tank and Tubing
If you use supplemental oxygen, you have to consider how to keep your oxygen warm when you go out and about in the winter. If the air in your oxygen tank or the tubing gets too cold it can be uncomfortable and difficult to breathe.
If you take your oxygen supply with you out in the cold weather, make sure to insulate the tank and tubing from the cold air. You can do this by keeping your portable oxygen tank in an insulated bag or case that protects it from the cold air and elements.
Another option—better for shorter jaunts—is to hold the tank under your coat so your body heat keeps it warm. Whatever you do, you should always try to keep your tubing secured under your coat or jacket so it doesn't cool down the oxygen coming from your tank.
Avoid Sick People and Crowded Places
When you have COPD, you are particularly susceptible to respiratory illnesses and even minor infections can be devastating to your health. That means you have to be especially careful to avoid germs and stay away from people who are sick.
It's best to avoid extremely crowded places and events during the winter when colds, the flu, and other respiratory illnesses are at their peak. When you do go to public places, make sure to wash your hands often and use hand sanitizer when needed.
Avoid touching your nose, mouth, or any part of your face when you're out in public unless you wash your hands first. That way you don't infect yourself with germs picked up from all the surfaces you've touched.
Keep Your Medications Handy
When the weather is cold and the air is dry, you're likely to experience more severe symptoms than usual. That means you will probably need to use your inhaler and other medications more often during the winter months.
You should always bring your inhaler, supplemental oxygen (if you use it), and any prescribed quick-relief medications with you, especially if you will be spending any amount of time outdoors. That way you'll have everything you need to get your symptoms back under control if the cold air starts to bother you.
You might even find that your usual prescription medications and therapies aren't enough to control your symptoms during long periods of cold weather. If this is the case, you should talk to your doctor right away so he can adjust your prescriptions or treatment plan to better manage your symptoms.
Watch Air Quality Forecasts
Extreme temperatures, both hot and cold, tend to worsen air quality. Because of this, air pollution is a major culprit behind increased COPD symptoms in the winter.
This is partly because people tend to generate more pollution in the winter by using fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, and leaving their cars running idle. But another cause of poor winter air quality is the cold air itself, which tends to trap smog and other particulates close to the ground instead of letting them disperse into the atmosphere.
If you have COPD, you should always avoid spending time outdoors when the air quality is poor, no matter the time of year. You can check your local air quality forecast daily at airnow.gov and plan your outings and activities for days when the air quality is good.
If you don't already know how, it's important to learn how to interpret air quality warnings and how they apply to COPD. For example, “moderate” quality air is considered acceptable for healthy individuals to breathe but can be harmful to people with COPD, especially in the latter stages of the disease.
Don't Neglect Indoor Air Quality
While it's a good idea to stay indoors on days when the outdoor air quality is poor, it won't do you much good if your indoor air is polluted, too. Many people don't realize that indoor allergens and pollutants can actually get worse in the winter and exacerbate your COPD symptoms.
For example, many appliances utilize combustion and can emit harmful fumes into your home. Many of these, including fireplaces, stoves, water heaters, and dryers, tend to be used more often in the winter months, too. It's important to make sure all of your appliances are well-ventilated and working properly to minimize the amount of pollution they leak into your home.
The winter months also coincide with holidays like Halloween and Christmas, which usually means digging for seasonal clothes and decorations. This often involves moving old boxes in your attic or basement and digging in the back of your closets. Unfortunately, moving around items in storage tends to unleash dust and other allergens from their resting place, which can hurt your indoor air quality and make COPD symptoms worse.
Since there are fewer opportunities to open the windows and air out your house in the winter, it's important to be especially vigilant about cleaning up dust, removing mold, and changing the air filters in your house's ventilation system. These are simple steps, but they can make a huge difference in the air quality in your home and how you feel.
Extra Tips for Staying Warm in the Cold
If you have COPD, keeping out of the cold should be a top priority in the winter. However, you can't always stay indoors, so you should be prepared to bundle up and protect yourself from the cold weather when it can't be avoided.
Dressing for the cold weather might seem like a no-brainer, but it's something you should really think about if you have COPD. The disease makes your body particularly susceptible to dangerous cold-weather reactions like increased blood pressure and irregular breathing. This is why it's so very important to keep your body warm
If you do have to go out on cold days, you should always take extra time to make sure you have everything you need to stay warm. You should check the temperature forecast daily and make sure to take wind chill, precipitation, and other weather conditions into consideration.
You should also never forget to bring your inhaler or rescue medications with you in case your symptoms get much worse in the cold. Here are some more general tips and techniques you can use stay warm and protect your lungs this winter:
- Dress in layers so you can always adjust to different temperatures. You can simply add an extra jacket or sweater if you get cold, and if you get too hot later, all you have to do is remove a layer.
- Wear long-sleeved undershirts, long underwear, or leggings for an extra under-layer in extremely cold weather.
- Don't forget about other pieces of important winter outerwear like scarves, hats, and gloves. It's also a good idea to keep an extra set of gloves in your car or handbag in case you forget when you leave the house.
- Always check your local weather forecast and plan around harsh weather and temperatures. Make sure to take humidity, air pollution, and wind chill into consideration too.
- Always cover and insulate your oxygen tank and tubing in cold weather.
- Consider wearing a CT mask or other cold weather mask to warm up the air as you breathe.
Cold, dry air tends to irritate your airways and thicken the mucus in your lungs. Both of these things lead to increased coughing and breathlessness, especially for people with COPD.
One of the ways to combat this is to drink extra water during the winter. Dehydration thickens mucus and makes COPD symptoms worse, while proper hydration keeps your airways moist and your mucus thin. This it much less likely that phlegm will obstruct your breathing or trigger a coughing fit, and makes it much easier to get mucus out with controlled coughing techniques.
You should always drink at least 6-8 glasses of water per day to stay hydrated, possibly more if you exercise. If you tend to forget, it helps to keep a couple of re-usable water bottles filled in places around your house. Keep a filled bottle in key, noticeable places like your fridge, living room, and nightstand for convenience.
Staying Active During the Winter
One indirect yet dangerous effect of cold weather on COPD is that it makes it more difficult to get enough physical activity. It's not just because the cold air makes breathing during exercise more difficult, but also because it often means staying indoors and giving up outdoor activities that help you stay active.
However, if you have COPD then you know that exercising is one of the healthiest, most important things you can do to treat your disease. It can improve your lung function, strengthen your breathing muscles, reduce COPD symptoms like coughing and breathlessness, and even slow down the progression of your disease.
Because of this, most doctors recommend getting as much exercise as you can, and that includes during the winter months. Even though the cold weather makes physical activity more difficult, it's still just as important for your health to find ways to stay active.
In this next section, we're going to help you out by showing you a variety of convenient ways you can stay active this winter. We'll and show you a variety of indoor activities and exercises you can do to avoid the cold weather and give you tips for handling the cold air when you can't avoid it.
Join a Gym
The gym is an obvious option for getting physical activity during the winter. Even if you don't go to a gym any other time of the year, it might be your best option when the weather is too cold to exercise outside.
Nearly all gyms have treadmills, exercise bicycles, stair steppers, and other machines for light to moderate aerobic activities. Some even have indoor tracks for a more natural walking or jogging experience.
Gyms also give you access to a variety of weights and strength training machines that you can use to build muscle more easily. Weight machines are often easier for less experienced people and those with limited mobility to use.
Gyms also have employees on hand that can teach you how to use the equipment and help you with any questions you have. Some gyms even host group exercise classes you can join, although you often have to pay an extra fee.
Find Alternative Places to Walk
Many people with COPD use walking as a primary source of exercise. It's a popular way for people with respiratory illnesses to stay active and is often recommended by doctors for being low-impact, effective, and less likely than many other exercises to make you feel out of breath.
Unfortunately, the cold winter weather makes it unpleasant, and even dangerous, to exercise outside if you have COPD. If you usually like to stroll around your neighborhood or an outdoor park, you'll have to find another way to get that exercise indoors, instead.
One of the most obvious and popular options for indoor walking is to join a gym. However, treadmills, indoor tracks, and monthly membership fees aren't for everyone. As an alternative, you can look for large, public buildings that have plenty of room to walk around.
Walking laps around an indoor shopping mall, for example, is a great option for exercising when it's too cold to walk outside. There are plenty of long, flat hallways to stroll down and plenty of interesting things and people to look at to stave off boredome.
You can also bring along a friend or two to make your indoor walks more fun. Some malls even have community walking groups or stay open after-hours to promote public walking indoors.
Other places that often have enough floor-space for walking include large community centers, department stores, and warehouse stores like Ikea. These places are generally open to the public most of the day and have plenty of space for walking laps.
When all else fails, you can get in your daily steps in by walking around your own home, instead. If you have enough space, you can do laps through the halls and climb up and down stairs for exercise. You can also walk or jog in place while listening to music or watching your favorite TV show.
Invest in a Pedometer
If you're used to walking outdoors during the warmer months, you probably measured your progress based on the distance of your walking route. But when you're forced to change your routine in the winter and move your walking indoors, it can be much more difficult to estimate how much exercise you got.
That's why you should consider getting a pedometer to help you keep track of how much walking you do this winter. That way, if you walk laps around your home, local mall, or another indoor place you can always know exactly how far and how many steps you walk. It's a great way to track your steps if you walk in place, too.
But pedometers aren't just for tracking your steps; they're a fantastic tool for motivation, too. Using a pedometer to track your progress helps you set goals, celebrate improvements, and challenge yourself to get in as many steps as you can every day.
Try At-Home Strength Training Exercises
Strength training is very important for people with COPD because it helps you build muscle and exercise endurance. In fact, many COPD patients who have trouble exercising say that muscle weakness and soreness holds them back even more than breathing difficulties do.
If the winter weather is disrupting your exercise routine or making it difficult to go to the gym, there are plenty of options for exercising at home. You don't even need weights or special equipment in order to tone and build strength, although a small set of light free-weights can make it easier build muscle and open up even more options and exercise techniques.
Many exercises you can do in your home are simple and take minimal equipment. All you have to do is clear out a space large enough to move around in and you can begin practicing a variety of strength training exercises right away.
To learn more, visit our previous article on how to effectively exercise at home here. It will teach you about a variety of different strength training exercises and other physical activities you can do without ever having to set foot outside.
Get Into Stretching
Stretching is very important for keeping your muscles limber and preventing injuries and cramps. Since COPD tends to cause muscle weakness and wasting, it's especially important for COPD patients to stretch regularly, especially before any kind of heavy or moderate physical activity.
Every workout should start and end with stretching, but many people neglect to spend as much time limbering up as they should. That's why the wintertime is a great time to get in the habit; your exercise options are limited anyways, so you might as well use the opportunity to stretch!
Spending some extra time stretching is a great way to boost your workout when you're confined to exercising indoors. You don't need any extra equipment to stretch in the comfort of your own home; all you need is motivation and a small, open space to move around in.
If you don't have much practice stretching, there are a variety of simple techniques that are easy to learn. You can find a variety of easy stretching exercises online or you can follow an exercise video (online or on DVD) with an emphasis on stretching to get more guided instruction.
How to Make Physical Activity Easier in the Cold
Although you should avoid the cold extremes as much as possible, you might occasionally end up being active out in the cold. You might find yourself in a situation where you have to take an extended walk or, if your doctor approves it, you might be able to do light exercise outside on mildly cold days.
Since cold, dry air tends to make COPD symptoms worse, you'll need to be prepared to protect your lungs and control your breathing when you do anything outside in the winter. If you have to exert yourself physically for whatever reason in the cold, use these tips for keeping your symptoms under control:
- Always breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Practice pursed lips breathing to keep your breathing rate steady.
- Always bring your inhaler, supplemental oxygen, and any prescribed rescue medications with you whenever you leave your home.
- Cover your mouth with a scarf or cold-weather mask to protect your lungs from the cold, dry air.
- Always stop exercising immediately if you feel breathless and take as long as you need to catch your breath. Don't try to resume any physical activity until you get your breathing back under control.
Look Out for the Signs of an Exacerbation
When your risk for exacerbations is high, such as during the cold winter season, you need to be on high alert. You need to pay extra attention to how you feel and take any extended worsening of your COPD symptoms very seriously.
There are a variety of symptoms that signal an oncoming exacerbation that you should remember and be on the lookout for. If you notice any of them, especially during the winter, you should immediately talk to your doctor and seek emergency medical help if needed.
Here are some of the early symptoms and warning signs of an exacerbation:
- Coughing or wheezing that is worse than usual
- Worse shortness of breath than usual
- Increased mucus in your lungs and airways
- Shallow or rapid breathing that worse or more often than normal
- Change in mucus color (yellow, green, or bloody in color)
- Excess fatigue or sleepiness
- Swelling in your ankles or feet (edema)
The winter is a challenging time for people with COPD, but it doesn't have to be miserable. There are many things you can do to protect your lungs and the rest of your body from the effects of the cold weather and dry air.
If you take the right precautions, like getting vaccinated and staying indoors during harsh weather, you can significantly reduce your chances for exacerbations this winter. Take the right steps to stay warm, stay healthy, and don't use the cold weather as an excuse to neglect your exercise routine or treatment regimen. Watch out for the early warning signs of an exacerbation to avoid serious complications and keep yourself safe.
You don't have to let the cold weather slow you down or keep you from enjoying and experiencing life. If you focus on staying warm, staying active, and staying healthy, even the harshest weather won't be able to drag you down.