Expert Answers: Dealing with Winter and COPD

Last updated: January 2019

Dealing with COPD at any time of year is a challenge, but it can be especially so in the winter! For this reason, we asked our panel of experts for their thoughts on the following question: Do you have any tips for dealing with winter and COPD? Check out their answers below, and feel free to add your own tips in the comments!

Response from Ann

Wintertime can make someone with COPD very uncomfortable. You want to go out and socialize but what about getting sick?!

Tip#1 – Prevention!

  • Keep your regular appointments – even if you feel well.
  • Keep on your medication routine as prescribed
  • Be sure to have your flu shot and pneumonia vaccine – and your family too!
  • Hand washing – especially when visiting your grandchildren ☺
  • Use your own pen when you are signing at the store or doctor’s office
  • Stay away from people who are sick

Know the early warning signs if you are getting sick. Some examples: Has your sputum changed color? Are you more short of breath than usual? Are you using your rescue inhaler more often? Have an action plan. Discuss this with your provider.

Tip#2 - Manage Your Indoor Environment

  • You’re spending more time indoors so managing your living environment is important.
  • Dust, smoke, air filters etc.

Tip#3 – Cover your nose and mouth with a scarf when you go out

  • This warms the air before it reaches your lungs, cold air makes COPD symptoms worse.

Tip#4 – Stay Hydrated & Get Rest

  • Drink plenty of water!

Tip#5 – Stay Connected

  • The winter can be long and dreary if you are somewhere that is cold. You can begin to feel isolated. Look for ways to stay connected even if you can’t go out, set up a regular phone call with family or ask your grandchildren to set up SKYPE and you can see them on video! Join an online book group. Stay connected by Facebook or email. A positive outlook, a sense of humor and a connection with friends and family all help in maintaining our health.

Response from John

Cold outdoor air tends to hold less humidity, and when inhaled may pull humidity from your airway, triggering a flare up. The best way to prevent this is to limit your time outdoors when the weather is cold, pace yourself, and wear a scarf over your mouth and nose. Dry indoor air may also dry your airways causing secretions to become thick and block airways. Humidifiers can help, but too much humidity may create a breeding ground for bacteria and other germs (including dust mites) that can also cause flare ups, so it's important to try to keep indoor humidity between 35-50%. Also keep in mind that cozy, non-ventilated indoor air also creates a nice breeding ground for germs. Hand washing is the best way to prevent the spread or germs. Remind visitors to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze, or, if possible, to avoid visiting you altogether. And, most important, please stay in touch with your doctor and call him right away when you start to feel symptoms.

Response from Leon

Winter time and it's characteristic cold weather, can be especially challenging for people with COPD. However there are several ways to be proactive to help pre-empt any exacerbations associated with the cold. Here are some tips:

    • Stay current and compliant with your COPD treatment regimen. If your COPD is well managed, you are less likely to have an exacerbation, even if you get sick with a cold or the flu.
    • Flu shot. Get your flu shot as early as they become available. Also, consult with your physician about getting a vaccination for pneumonia to reduce your risk of infection.
    • Know your alpha-1 antitrypsin status. If you’ve been diagnosed with COPD, ask your doctor about being tested for alpha-1 antitrypsin. This is a known genetic risk factor for developing COPD. If you have alpha-1, but are not specifically being treated for this condition, you are more likely to have an exacerbation.
    • Avoid people who are sick. This may seem obvious but it doesn't mean you must hide all winter. In most cases, common sense should prevail. Don't socialize with the friend who has a cold and certainly don't plan to visit or volunteer at your children's/grandchildren's elementary school events until the warmer weather returns.
    • Wash your hands. This clichéd advice is still your best strategy for staying healthy. Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth unless you know your hands are clean. Carry antimicrobial hand sanitizer for times when you don’t have access to soap and water. And, never feel embarrassed about asking your doctor or nurse to wash their hands before examining you; it is considered the gold standard of prevention and care.
    • Warm and humidify the air. Cold air can be a trigger. When you’re outside, doing something as simple as wrapping a clean scarf over your mouth and nose will assist your upper airway in keeping the air warm and moist. Again, let common sense prevail. If you don't have to go out, then don't.
    • Drink lots of water. COPD makes you work hard to breathe. If you have a respiratory infection on top of that, you’ll be working even harder. We expel moisture with every breath. All this means you can get dehydrated quickly. Drink lots of water, whether or not you’re sick.
    • Limit indoor pollutants. Heating your home during the wintertime can generate lung irritants, especially wood smoke from the fireplace, kerosene, scented candles and incense. Since it’s too cold to open the window to help to air the house out, try to cut down on indoor sources of pollution.

Following these tips may be of genuine value to help you get through the seasonal cold weather without experiencing a worsening of your COPD symptoms.

Response from Lyn

Winter can be a challenge for any of us – but for those that suffer with breathing problems, it can be especially taxing. Any of us that work in a healthcare setting know that we’ll begin to see an increase in our COPD patients starting in late Fall/early winter. This can be prevented or at least minimized by a few simple measures.

  • Get your flu shot. Getting the flu when you have COPD can be very dangerous. Although not a guarantee that you’ll remain “flu-free”, the shot is protection against it and if you do happen to contract the flu, it’s likely to be a mild case. You should also ask your doctor about the pneumonia vaccine if you’ve never had one – they will probably recommend that you have that as well.
  • Before going outside into the cold air, cover your face with a scarf to breathe through. This will make the air less irritating to your airways. Obviously it’s not always feasible, but remain indoors on those particularly extreme days if you can.
  • Although it may be impossible to avoid entirely, remember that certain indoor pollutants can be very irritating to those with COPD. Wood smoke can produce irritating particles to those with breathing problems. If you heat your home with wood, make sure your method is as “clean” as possible.

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