COPD and Winter Weather: How to Breathe Easy During Cold Months
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can make you feel shortness of breath or cough, wheeze, and spit out excess phlegm and sputum. These symptoms may get worse during extreme temperatures and make COPD harder to manage. To learn more about COPD and winter weather, keep reading.
Does COPD Get Worse in Winter?
The short answer is yes. COPD symptoms can become worse during winter and harsh weather conditions.
One study by Meredith McCormick and her colleagues found that COPD patients experienced higher hospitalization rates and worse quality of life during cold & dry conditions.
Cold weather can make you feel tired and out of breath. It is because frigid temperatures contract the blood vessels, restricting blood flow.
As a result, the heart must pump more forcefully to provide the body with oxygen. As the cold weather increases your blood pressure, your lungs will also work harder to provide oxygen in the bloodstream.
These physical changes can cause fatigue and difficulty breathing.. Additional symptoms that may present or worsen in cold weather include fever, swollen ankles, confusion, excess coughing, and oddly-colored mucus.
How Winter and Cold Temperatures Affect COPD Patients
When it's cold, your body may temporarily increase its respiratory rate, causing you to take fast, shallow breaths to cope with extreme temperatures.
Additionally, humidity and wind also contribute to COPD flare-ups. For example, the air becomes denser when it's hot and humid.
It might feel like it's harder to breathe air, as denser winds create resistance in airflow towards the lungs. This resistance can cause you shortness of breath even while doing simple tasks like walking or going up and down stairs.
The air becomes less humid when it's too cold (think below 32 degrees Fahrenheit). It can dry out your mucous membranes and irritate your airways, leading to symptom flare-ups. According to experts, dry air can also make it harder for the mucus membranes to clear viruses and bacteria from the airways.
5 Tips to Cope With COPD in Winter Months
With winter occurring every year, how can you breathe easier with COPD? Here are some tips for coping with the disease during cold weather conditions.
1. Use a reliable humidifier
For COPD patients, humidity levels between 30% and 50% are ideal for indoor and outdoor settings. To achieve this level, you can use a humidifier from a reputable brand.
Humidifiers work by releasing water vapor to increase the moisture in the air. In other words, it warms and humidifies cold, dry air.
You can opt for a humidifier with your central heating system or a portable humidifier that you plug into an energy source.
Either way, it's always great to follow manufacturer instructions and clean the humidifier. It has an air filter that you need to clean or replace regularly.
2. Avoid airway irritants
Cigarette smoke, fumes from chemical cleaners, and other airway irritants can significantly aggravate your COPD symptoms. Constant exposure to these pollutants may lead to hospitalization and even death.
Another thing to avoid is active fireplaces and wood-burning stoves. These can emit harmful particles that may irritate the airways. Instead, it's ideal to use an electric stove and heater.
When combined with dry air, these irritants can significantly aggravate your symptoms. It can also lead to negative long-term consequences for your health.
3. Always cover your nose and mouth with a scarf
Wearing protective gear during colder weather is a must. For example, you can wear a cold-weather mask that humidifies and warms the air you breathe. These masks can help prevent your airways from drying during winter.
Another option is to use a scarf to cover your nose and mouth. Remember that the scarf shouldn't be scratchy as it might irritate your skin.
It may also help you to breathe through your nose, as this helps warm and humidify the air that enters your respiratory system.
4. Get necessary vaccinations
Colds and flu-like symptoms are common during winter. In many instances, infections affecting the lungs are enhanced by cold weather.
Infections and viruses can worsen your COPD symptoms and lead to increased coughing, wheezing, fatigue, and shortness of breath.
It's ideal to receive your annual flu shot and pneumonia shots to reduce your risk of getting the above mentioned illnesses. However, remember to consult with your physician before getting these vaccinations.
Another way to avoid these illnesses is by maintaining proper hygiene. Wash your hands, avoid crowded places, and keep your home clean.
5. Maintain a proper diet and exercise
Proper diet and exercise are essential for people with COPD to increase their immunity during extreme temperatures.
Drinking plenty of water, for example, can help with breathing, especially if you're suffering from a respiratory infection.
Your body needs vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients to fight illnesses and maintain overall health.
Additionally, healthcare providers recommend exercise for people suffering from COPD. However, it's best to establish an indoor exercise routine during winter, as outdoor air conditions can exacerbate your symptoms.
What is the Best Kind of Heat Source in Winter for People With COPD?
During winter, you might think using your fireplace is the best way to combat the cold outside air. However, the particles produced by burning firewood may aggravate your airways.
Active fireplaces can also add to smoke buildup inside the home, further irritating COPD patients. With this in mind, what is the best way to keep warm for those with COPD?
The first thing to remember during the winter is your clothing. Wearing warm, comfortable clothes like thermal underwear, trousers, and thick apparel may help keep your body temperature regular.
Ideally, the homes of people with COPD should have a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit and a 30 to 50 percent humidity level. To achieve this, experts recommend a centralized heating system with clean filters, ducts, and vents.
Where is the Best Place for COPD Patients in the Winter?
The best place for COPD patients in the winter is indoors. Here, patients can control humidity and temperature as much as possible.
People with COPD can also use humidifiers and other heating systems to keep the air quality ideal for their condition. Always remember, though, to keep these devices clean.
If you need to go outside, wear a cold-air face mask from manufacturers designed to combat dry and irritating air. You can also opt for a soft, smooth scarf to cover your mouth and nose.
If you need to exercise, it's best to work out indoors. There are plenty of at-home exercises that one can do to stay in shape.
Experts suggest a place with a mild climate for COPD patients. Additionally, they recommend a pollution-free, open area free of pollen and other airborne particles.
For example, places like Prescott, Arizona, and Naples, Florida, offer mild climates and excellent air quality.
3 Best Things to Do for COPD Patients During Winter
1. Bring your quick-relief medication with you at all times
Physicians often prescribe bronchodilators to alleviate COPD symptoms. These can open up and relax the airways, making breathing easier for people.
Before going outside, you can take a preventative dosage of your prescribed bronchodilator. Always keep this inhaler with you wherever you go, indoors, out on a trip, or running quick errands.
2. Stay indoors as much as possible
When you're inside your home, it's easier to control the air quality and humidity. You can ensure that the air is clean and that no irritants can cause a COPD flare-up.
However, checking your ventilation and heating system is essential to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Some experts also suggest opening your windows about 10 to 15 minutes a day to let fresh air inside your home.
3. Avoid air pollutants indoors and outdoors
Air pollution irritates your lungs and airways, making your symptoms flare up suddenly. Outdoors, you might encounter dust, smog, pollen, smoke, and odors from factories and roadwork. That's why avoiding these environments or wearing protective gear is ideal.
Indoors, it would help if you watched out for dust, pet dander, mold, perfumes, household chemicals, and other irritants. Partnered with the cold air, these can make your symptoms flare up.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is COPD worse in the winter?
Yes. COPD flare-ups can happen because of the colder and drier air during winter. When people with COPD patients inhale cold air, their airways tighten and become irritated.
The cold weather also affects blood flow, making your heart and lungs overcompensate. Read this article to discover more about how COPD affects your lungs and respiratory system.
What helps COPD in cold weather?
Keeping your nose and mouth covered, regulating humidity levels and air quality, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help minimize the effects of COPD during winter.
Additionally, some physicians recommend using a portable oxygen concentrator to alleviate symptoms. Click here to learn more about portable oxygen concentrators or POCs and how they can help with COPD.
Is winter or summer better for COPD?
Cold weather brings more negative effects for COPD patients than hot weather. Some studies reveal that more patients need treatment during cold conditions than in summer.
Some people with COPD may say that summer is better for COPD, but hot and humid air also adversely affects your respiratory system. For example, your body can overheat and need more oxygen to keep the temperature down.
Can cold weather affect oxygen levels?
Yes, cold weather can affect your oxygen levels. Extreme cold temperatures make your blood vessels narrow, restricting blood flow and reducing oxygen levels.
Low oxygen levels can lead to headaches because it widens blood vessels in the brain. You can read this article to learn more about COPD and headaches and how to combat them with supplemental oxygen.
What temperature is too cold for COPD?
When it's too cold, COPD symptoms can flare up. Generally, temperatures lower than 32 degrees Fahrenheit can harm people with COPD.
Additionally, humidity levels below 10 percent can dry out your mucous membranes and irritate your airways.
You can use a humidifier and electric heating to avoid the harmful effects of cold weather on COPD symptoms.
What triggers COPD flare-ups?
Extreme weather conditions, pollutants, irritants, and an unhealthy lifestyle can cause COPD flare-ups.
Another lesser-known cause of COPD aggravation is stress. When stressed, your body produces chemicals that increase blood pressure and heart rate. Click this link to read more about anxiety and COPD.
It's best to avoid these triggers to prevent COPD flare-ups.
Breathe Easier This Winter
It may seem daunting to experience the cold winter air if you have COPD. However, you can avoid exacerbating your condition by keeping your air quality and humidity ideal. You can also stay indoors and maintain a proper lifestyle.
It's also ideal to use a humidifier and clean your air filters regularly to avoid sudden flare-ups. Upon the advice of your physician, portable oxygen concentrators can also help you maintain oxygen levels.
At SpryLyfe, we offer portable and stationary oxygen concentrators and other medical devices to help you with COPD and winter weather. We also have affordable payment plans, a 30-day money-back guarantee, and other exclusive offers!
- McCormack, M.C., Paulin, M.L., Gummerson, C.E., Peng, R.D., Dietter, G.B. & Hansel, N.N. (2017). Colder temperature is associated with increased COPD morbidity.European Respiratory Journal 49(6). https://doi.org/10.1183/13993003.01501-2016
- Kingsley, C. (n.d.). Best (and worst) weather for COPD. Lung Institute. https://lunginsthttps//lunginstitute.com/best-weather-for-copd/itute.com/best-weather-for-copd/
- Bayhealth. (n.d.). Effects of dry winter air and indoor heating on our respiratory health. Bayhealth. https://www.bayhealth.org/community-health-and-wellness/blog/2020/december/winter-respiratory-health
Written by Andy Flynn
Andy Flynn is the founder of Sprylyfe, the leading retailer of portable oxygen concentrators in the United States. He also co-founded ARYA BioMed.
Get to know him on LinkedIn.
Medically Reviewed By Aaron Gravely, M.D.
Aaron L. Gravely, M.D. is a professional medical writer and physician-scientist with over 8 years of experience in healthcare and medical research.