Dealing with COPD in Cold Weather

For COPD patients, cold weather can exacerbate shortness of breath

A man is short of breath.
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Cold weather can pose significant issues when it comes to managing your chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) symptoms. Too-cold temperatures further narrow already compromised airways, leading to a cascade of events that can increase difficulty breathing, mucus production, coughing, and more. Aside from being uncomfortable, these flares and exacerbations of COPD can be dangerous.

This, of course, doesn't mean that you need to avoid the outdoors when cold weather rolls in. But it does mean that it's worth being prepared for how it might impact your COPD and taking preventive measures.

How Cold Can Trigger COPD Flare-Ups

Temperatures below freezing (32 degrees F) have been shown to trigger COPD flare-ups.

An influx of cold air into the lungs results in narrowing airways and an increase in the respiration rate, followed by an immediate drop. Narrow airways restrict blood flow, which means that oxygen to the rest of your body becomes limited. To make up for the restricted blood flow, the heart has to work harder to increase circulation, which is taxing and can also increase blood pressure.

This may result in an increase in the following symptoms:

  • Dyspnea
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Shallow breathing
  • Increased mucus production
  • Difficulty clearing airways

Managing COPD in Cold Weather

To reduce your risk of flare-ups, take preventative steps to limit your exposure to cold air and weather, which may mean avoiding going outside during certain hours, and wearing more protective gear.

Use Your Rescue Inhaler

Take a preventative dose of your rescue inhaler before going outdoors in cold weather, especially if you are planning on taking a walk or doing any type of exercise. A rescue inhaler contains a bronchodilator which opens up and relaxes the airways, making it easier to breathe. You should also carry a rescue inhaler with you wherever you go, whether it be a brisk walk around the block or when you are out running errands.

Extreme temperatures can affect COPD patients differently than healthy people, whether it's extreme heat or extreme cold. Preparing in advance for winter cold or summer heat will ensure that you and your lungs will be protected in spite of nasty weather conditions.

Don't Smoke

As most people with COPD are aware, cigarette smoke is extremely irritating to the airway, containing more than 4,000 toxic chemicals. But when you combine smoking with exposure to cold air, your symptoms of breathlessness can increase exponentially. Smoking causes COPD to progress at a much faster rate, leading to further disability and eventually death. If you have COPD, quitting smoking is the best way to slow the progression of the disease and improve your quality of life, not to mention it allows you to breathe more easily in all sorts of conditions, including cold weather.

Avoid Wood Burning Stoves or Fireplaces

People with lung problems are much more susceptible than healthy people to smoke-related health problems. Exposure to noxious particles from wood-burning stoves or fireplaces causes both short- and long-term health consequences. It also irritates the airways, especially when you combine it with the inhalation of cold air, often worsening breathlessness. To stay warm, try an energy-efficient electric heater instead.

Exercise Indoors

COPD patients are strongly encouraged to exercise, but when cold weather makes it uncomfortable or even impossible, try exercising indoors. Exercising in the comfort of your own home or a gym is a safe alternative to exercising outdoors. If you must exercise outdoors, be sure to warm up indoors first, for at least 15 to 20 minutes.

Wear Protective Gear and Breathe Through Your Nose

Because cold air is very drying and irritating to the airways, it's no wonder that it can increase your breathlessness. Wearing protective gear, like a scarf over your nose and mouth or a cold-weather mask, and breathing through your nose instead of your mouth warms and humidifies the inspired air before it gets to the airways. This prevents shortness of breath related to cold air-induced bronchospasm.

A Word From Verywell

If you have COPD and live in a climate that's on the colder side, you might be putting yourself at risk for more flare-ups of your condition. Many people who have COPD often move to more temperate climates, though beware of extreme heat, too, as that can also cause issues.

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