Coping With Heat When You Have COPD

Strategies for preventing heat and humidity from worsening symptoms

Mature woman walking while drinking water
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For many people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), exposure to heat can trigger or worsen symptoms. This is as likely to happen in overheated rooms during the winter as it is during the height of summer, and the addition of humidity can exacerbate the effects. Going from one temperature extreme to another also can be problematic for those with chronic lung disease.

If you have COPD, it's important to understand how heat affects your lungs and breathing passages. With this knowledge, you can be better prepared to take measures to keep symptoms in check when it's hot.

How Heat Affects COPD

Shortness of breath (dyspnea) is a primary complaint in chronic lung disease. Extreme heat can exacerbate this symptom by putting stress on the entire body to maintain a normal temperature (around 98.6 degrees F).

In a heated environment, the body has to work extra hard to cool down, which in turn increases the demand for oxygen. The only way to feed that demand is to breathe in more air. For someone who is already struggling to breathe, the additional need for oxygen can make the task even harder.

Breathing in heated air can further irritate the already inflamed airways (bronchi) of a person with COPD, causing the smooth muscle that lines them to contract, thereby narrowing the passageway through which air travels from the trachea to the lungs. This is known as bronchospasm.

Bronchospasms can cause the chest to feel tight and trigger a cough. There may be a whistling or wheezing sound with each breath and, because the airways are constricted, it can be hard to breathe deeply enough to get enough oxygen.

Finally, research shows that extreme heat increases the concentration of particulate matter in the air (i.e., pollution), which can trigger and exacerbate COPD symptoms.

Although you can't control the weather or, in many cases, your environment, you can control how you prepare for and handle temperature extremes. The following strategies can help.

Drink Plenty of Fluids

One way the body stays cool is through perspiration. But in order to sweat effectively, it needs to be well-hydrated. If there isn't enough fluid in the body to draw on for this process, the body needs to work even harder to make it happen.

Research notes, however, that thirst is not a reliable sign that it's time to step up your fluid intake: You are likely already dehydrated by the time you feel the need to drink.

It's best to be proactive, especially in hot temperatures, by drinking water and other fluids throughout the—even if you don't feel thirsty.

Pay Attention to Weather Reports

Make it a habit to watch or listen to your local weather report each day, particularly in the summer or if you live in a region that tends to be hot year-round. Learn how to use the National Weather Service's heat index chart, which assesses the severity of the weather by considering both heat and humidity.

Also keep an eye (or ear) out for pollution advisories; local weather reports often include this information.

Plan Your Schedule Around the Heat

In summer or hot climates, limit outings to the early morning or after the sun goes down as often as possible. During the rest of the day, stay indoors as much as you can—preferably somewhere that has air conditioning.

If you don't have AC in your home, plan to spend time in places that do (the library, the mall, the home of a friend or family member, or a local heat-relief shelter). You may actually be able to deduct the expense of an AC unit from your taxes if your doctor recommends you purchase one, but you will need a note from them to do this. Check the Internal Revenue Service website, and with your accountant, for more information.

Dress for the Environment

In summer, wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing in order to stay as cool as possible. In winter, when you know you'll be in, say, an overheated office where you can't control the temperature, dress in layers that you can shed as necessary to stay cool.

Don't Overexert Yourself

On hot days, it's best not to exercise or do any type of strenuous activity outdoors. Don't let this be an excuse to skip your regular workouts, though: Physical activity is an important part of managing COPD. So, if possible, find ways to exercise in an air-conditioned environment.

Take Cool Showers or Baths

Whenever you feel overheated, dousing your body in cool water will help to bring down your body temperature.

Follow Your Treatment Regimen

Take your medications as directed. If you use oxygen, talk to your doctor about potential adjustments in your oxygen requirements when you'll be in extreme heat.

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hansel NN, McCormack MC, Kim V. The Effects of Air Pollution and Temperature on COPDCOPD. 2016;13(3):372–379. doi:10.3109/15412555.2015.1089846

  2. Popkin BM, D'Anci KE, Rosenberg IH. Water, hydration, and healthNutr Rev. 2010;68(8):439–458. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00304.x

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