The Heat is On: Effects of Hot Weather on COPD
Last updated: September 2020
I'm a freak of nature I'm so hot. I need someone who'll continually fan me, bathe my face with a cold washcloth, shade me with a parasol, and feed me refrigerated grapes. Why, oh, why couldn't I be born a Roman empress? This summer might just do me in.
Maybe you've been there. You open the door to go outside and slam into a wall of heat. Or you're outside working or playing in the yard and you realize it's getting hot and humid. You're walking or driving through a city during the summer and can see a haze of pollution over it. You start having trouble breathing, suffer an exacerbation, and/or feel more fatigue in these situations.
Effects of hot, humid weather on COPD
Are these common reactions for COPD patients when the weather gets hot and muggy?
Does indoor heat and mugginess have the same effects? And is air pollution involved?
The outdoor climate
Studies have proven that when we go outside on really hot days that we tend to have more shortness of breath, coughing, and mucus.1 Which comes as no surprise to us. I know I suffer more from all three symptoms in the summer.
A 2016 study by Nadia Hansel, et al2., found that higher temperatures affected breathing in an even more negative way. It mentions a study in New York that found that for COPD patients the risk of hospitalization rose 7.6% for every two degrees the temp went above 84 degrees Fahrenheit. The article also pointed out Medicare data for the whole U.S. showed that hospitalization rose 4.7% for every 10 degrees' increase above 84 degrees Fahrenheit.
People who live in places with milder weather have an even tougher time with the hot when they are exposed to a heat wave or travel to hotter climates3. Also, those with asthma suffer from bronchoconstriction when they breathe hot, humid air2.
So being out in really hot and/or humid weather is definitely something you need to be careful about if you have COPD.
Managing the heat indoors
When I was in college I worked summers for the National Archives and Records Center in Atlanta. No, I didn't get to handle any really cool stuff; I was pulling tax returns the IRS had requested for audits. The building contained all of the tax returns for the entire United States for the past seven years. Picture the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that showed the ark being carted through a vast, seemingly unending warehouse. Now picture that warehouse stuffed to the brim with shelves full of folders and papers and you'll have a good idea of where I worked. It was a metal building and the stacks, as they were called, had no air conditioning. It was the summer in Georgia in a metal building stuffed with paper. We got HOT. The workers were young and healthy and had problems dealing with the temperatures.
Now picture how worse we would fare if we COPD patients were put in that situation.
Even though you are indoors if it is too hot your symptoms and your breathing will be worse.1 Our little air conditioning unit can't keep sometimes and I can feel myself getting worse. If we have to use the oven when we cook, I can feel myself getting worse. If I could actually get delivery out here I would happily live on cold pizza and milkshakes for the four months of warm weather.
Indoor air pollution can also worsen our condition and cause exacerbations.1 Air pollutants include wood or other biomass fuels burning, and secondhand smoke. We relied on wood burning for our heat for 25 years – until I got COPD. Now the fireplace is closed down. I don't grill out on the hibachi anymore and I stay away from any bonfires or campfires. We also do not allow anyone to smoke in our house. Secondhand smoke puts others at risk for COPD and causes not only shortness of breath for COPD patients but also puts us at risk for those dreaded exacerbations.1
Tips to beat the summer heat
An online article by Deborah Leader RN called “COPD: The Heat Is On: 8 Tips for Beating the Summer Heat With COPD” gives this good advice on exactly how to do that. You can read her tips here: And you can find a similar article on COPD.net here.
And here is my list of tips for tackling the summer heat:
1. Eat a lot of Popsicles. We make our own sometimes with pudding or with fruit. But usually we just buy them at the store. Especially those ones that you push up from the bottom. That is pure delight on a summer day.
2. Drink smoothies or milkshakes. Yep. I drink them just to make sure I'm cool enough. It's for my health, I swear. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
3. Have some lemonade or sweet tea with a lot of ice in it. It's best served on a shaded covered porch. Yes, I did grow up in the South. How did you know? We also like a sweet and sour drink called sekanjabin which has mint sprigs in it. Mint always tastes cool and refreshing to me.
4. Keep a fan near you. Even though we have air conditioning I have a portable fan that I take with me from room to room if I'm going to be in that room for a while. Having the air movement on my skin helps me feel much better.
5. When you nap in your hammock make sure it's in shade. Now, this is very important. Naps in a hammock should always be enjoyable. Since they're a big part of my life I've made sure to place it where it will be in the shade throughout the day.
6. Change your schedule. Get up early if you're going outside, then stay indoors in the afternoon, and go back outside again when it's cooler in the evening. I like to walk through the yard and garden and take pictures so during the summer I try to stick to this rule. I also help pick the vegetables and do little bits of weeding which is miserable to do in the hot afternoon.
7. Pools are awesome. You may know this already. If you can swim, swimming is great. Just keep an eye on your breathing. And if you're like me and you can't swim anymore, just sit on the stairs or stay in the shallow end. I also like to stay in the kiddie area of our community pool. I get some strange looks so I just tell people I'm practicing if I ever have another baby. It works.
8. Rest when you need to. I saved the best for last. I've discovered this summer that my energy level and ability to handle the heat has really diminished. So I'm very, very careful to do only what I can do and to rest when I need to.
How about you? How do you tackle the summertime heat? Share in the comments!
What stage was your COPD diagnosed as?