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How the Weather Can Cause COPD Exacerbation

August 30, 2019
While we all have our seasonal weather preferences, people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have extra reason to follow weather forecasts. Extreme temperatures, humidity levels and even passing thunderstorms all can cause COPD symptoms to flare. Understanding how weather can trigger your symptoms — and how to reduce your risks — are important steps in staying healthy in all kinds of weather.
What to Watch Out For
Researchers have determined the ideal environmental conditions for COPD patients include an air temperature of 70 degrees and a humidity level of 40%. This combination can help airways stay relaxed, which minimizes the risk of symptoms. Modern heating and air conditioning systems (along with humidifiers and dehumidifiers) can help maintain these conditions indoors. However, few locations feature such ideal outdoor weather all year long. So, if you have COPD, here’s what to expect when temperature and humidity aren’t ideal.
  • Too cold. When the thermometer dips below 32 degrees F, humidity levels fall, as well. Humidity levels below 10% can dry out mucous membranes. Such dry air can irritate airways, which can cause symptoms to flare. Low humidity also makes it harder for the membranes to produce the fluid they need to move viruses and bacteria. Allergy symptoms also can be worse when membranes are dry. As a result, the risk of both lung infections and allergies rises in cold, dry conditions.

  • Too hot. High temperatures, especially above 90 degrees, also can cause problems for those with COPD. The exact reason why isn’t yet known. However, inhaling hot air is known to worsen airway inflammation for those with COPD and asthma. Additionally, smog-related ozone levels also often rise in summer heat. This makes breathing harder for those with lung disease.

  • Too windy. Walking against a high wind can be taxing to those with COPD, who can become fatigued easily. Also, pollen and dust are both more present in the air when winds are high. These irritants can trigger symptom flare-ups.

  • Thunderstorms. Thunderstorms have been known to trigger asthma symptoms. This means they could make COPD symptoms flare as well. Such effects can be felt when storms arrive during springtime’s high-pollen periods. The pollen grains get sucked into storm clouds and become saturated with water. They then can break into smaller grains that are carried by wind at the ground level and easily inhaled into the lungs.
Meeting Weather Challenges
It’s likely now clear that it’s important to keep up with local weather forecasts if you have COPD. Knowing what to expect from outdoor conditions can help you better plan shopping and other chores for times when the weather won’t slow you down. Here are some tips to help with that planning:
  • If you need to be outside during cold, dry weather, wear a scarf over your mouth and nose. This will warm and humidify the air as you breathe in through your mouth to limit airway constriction.

  • Central heating can dry out your home during winter months. Use a humidifier to add some moisture back into the air to make your breathing easier.

  • During hot and humid conditions, remaining inside could be the best option for keeping symptoms under control. It’s best if you have access to air conditioning, which both cools and dehumidifies the air.
  • Regardless of the weather, be sure to carry your quick-relief medication if you need to be out and about. Slow down what you’re doing and use the medication right away if you begin to feel any symptoms.