Maintaining COPD Control During the Winter Months
Staying healthy with COPD is all about maintaining control over your symptoms as well as you can. Winter, though, presents a number of challenges to your control efforts. Here are a few tips to help you maintain control of your COPD and stay healthy all winter.
Prevention Is the Key
The first step to staying healthy is preventing winter time illnesses from affecting you. I’m talking about the common cold and flu, which are found everywhere during the cold weather months. Such infections are the enemy of people with COPD, as they can quickly cause your airways to spiral out of control. Complications can land you in the hospital or even threaten your life.
So, avoiding infection is the key to staying healthy during the winter!
- First off, avoid people who are sick. That’s the easiest way to keep from catching whatever infection they have. Public places are obviously a hotbed of germs, but caregivers or family members might also be a threat to you. If you must come into contact with them when they are sick, you can wear a mask or ask them to wear one when they are caring for you or visiting you. Preferably, a mask with a HEPA-filter would be used.
- Second, practice good hand washing techniques if you are in a public place or come into contact with someone who is sick. Wash your hands in warm, soapy water for a few minutes and dry them with a paper towel or air dryer.
- Get your flu and pneumonia immunizations! Everyone should get a yearly flu shot, especially people who have COPD. In addition, you will need a pneumonia shot every few years. Check with your doctor as to whether you are due for a pneumonia shot.
Also, be aware of early warning symptoms that you might be getting sick. Acting on these right away can help prevent serious complications. Such early warning signs include:
- Any change or worsening of your usual COPD symptoms
- Change in color or consistency of mucus
- Needing to use your rescue inhaler more often
Be Ready for Cold Air and Its Effects on Breathing
Cold air can be drying and irritating and can stimulate COPD symptoms, such as:
Breathing in frigid air can actually cause your airways to spasm — this is called bronchospasm. And that can lead to extreme shortness of breath. I have asthma and have often experienced that. It’s no different for people who have COPD. But it can be scary!
So, what can you do? Well, first of all being prepared by having your rescue inhaler close by, if you use one, can be helpful. As soon as you start to have symptoms by breathing in cold air, a couple puffs on your rescue inhaler can relax your airways and relieve your symptoms.
I’ve also found it very helpful to breathe through a scarf placed over my mouth and nose. This helps warm and moisturize the air you’re inhaling, thus forestalling bronchospasm. There are also cold weather masks you can use that will do the same thing. You can even just cup your hands over your mouth and nose.
In addition, breathing in through your nose, rather than your mouth, gives the air more time to warm and moisten before hitting your airways. If you use oxygen, tuck your tubing inside your coat to help warm it.
If you are used to exercising indoors, winter may be the time to move indoors. Walk in your nearby shopping mall or go to the gym. Swimming pools are a great place to exercise when you have COPD, because of the warm, moist air. If you must exercise outdoors during cold weather, then take time to warm up indoors first for 10 to 15 minutes.
Avoid Wood Smoke and Other Airway Irritants
Fireplaces are more likely to be used during winter, but wood smoke can be very irritating to the airways, so you may want to think about avoiding rooms where a wood-burning fireplace or stove is being used.
During the cold weather months, other types of airway irritants are also more likely to mount up inside of homes and other locations, since windows are not open and air conditioners are not being run. Be aware of this and do your best to avoid such things as:
- Tobacco smoke
- Scented candles
- Household product odors
- Certain allergens, such as pet dander, molds an dust mites
Although people who have COPD often do get sicker during the winter months, it doesn’t always have to be that way. Get proactive and prepare for cold weather and you may just find you get through this next winter just fine and in control of your COPD.
- Koskela HO, Koskela AK, Tukiainen HO. Bronchoconstriction due to cold weather in COPD. The roles of direct airway effects and cutaneous reflex mechanisms. Chest 1996; 110: 632–636.
- American Lung Association. Weather and Your Lungs. Accessed November 30, 2017.