Coping with Heat When You Have COPD

Coping With Heat and Humidity

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 (when the addition of humidity can exacerbate the effects of heat).

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. This way you'll be better prepared to take measures to beat the heat whatever the season.

Effects of Heat on 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 demand for oxygen can make breathing 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—pollution—which in turn can trigger and exacerbate COPD symptoms.

Strategies for Coping With Heat

Although you can't control the weather or, in many cases, your environment, you can control how you prepare for and handle temperature extremes. Here are some ways to beat the heat when you have COPD:

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 will need to work extra hard to stay cool. Note: Thirst is not a reliable sign you need to step up your fluid intake, according to the Mayo Clinic. By the time you feel the need to drink it's likely you're already dehydrated. It's best to be proactive, especially in hot temperatures, by drinking water and other fluids throughout the day even if you don't feel thirsty.

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.

Plan your schedule around the heat: In summer or hot climates, as often as possible limit outings to the early morning or after the sun goes down. During the rest of the day, stay indoors as much as possible—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). If your doctor advises you to purchase AC, you may be able to deduct the expense from your taxes, but you will need a note from him or her to do this. (Your accountant can advise you about this.) Another option: Call your local health department to see if there are heat-relief shelters in your area.

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

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

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. Keep an eye (or ear) out for pollution advisories on your local news. Taking these measures, as well as any others your doctor advises, can help you to weather the heat without exacerbating your COPD symptoms.

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