Sun shining

How Heat and Humidity Can Affect COPD

The high heat and humidity that are very common at this time of year can cause misery for just about anyone. But for those living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, they can be particularly bothersome.

COPD is an umbrella term for obstructive airway diseases including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Unlike asthma, the obstruction is not reversible, it is permanent. Not surprisingly, common symptoms of COPD include decreased endurance and getting short winded with less and less activity. When there is “COPD exacerbation,” which means a flare-up of the disease, patients experience tightness in the chest, wheezing, difficulty breathing, coughing more, and producing more phlegm. COPD is caused mainly by smoking, but air pollution and prolonged exposure to poor air quality can be other contributing factors.

“Weather changes can adversely affect COPD patients,” said Michel Samaha, MD. “This includes high humidity and temperatures, or cold and windy conditions. These fluctuations in weather could trigger bronchospasm, which causes narrowing of the airways, and airway inflammation, making it difficult for people with COPD to breathe in and out.”

To combat these effects, Dr. Samaha says people with COPD should avoid going outside when there are extreme weather conditions, such as elevated humidity levels and temperatures. “If you really don’t have to go outside, then just don’t,” he said. “Stay inside in cooler temperatures and air conditioning, with good quality filters that should be changed in a timely manner. If you must go outside, take measures to keep yourself cool: stay in the shade; wear loose-fitting clothing and a hat; and make sure you stay well hydrated and carry plenty of water.”

“Since air pollution also worsens COPD symptoms and can make it difficult to breathe, if you know you are going to be in a polluted area, in addition to the heat and humidity, put on a mask,” Dr. Samaha said. “Don’t forget that cutting grass; a high pollen count; or animals such as chickens, cats, dogs, etc., could affect air quality. Your airways could be sensitive to those and avoidance is best,” he added. “Our beloved farmers who have COPD could also be affected by weather, hay and dusty air and this could have a major impact on their livelihood.”

Bottom line is, according to Dr. Samaha, COPD has so many variables that it’s unpredictable how your airways are going to react to the weather. “Not everyone is affected the same way,” he explained. “It can depend on the severity of disease or the air quality. That’s why the best course of action is to avoid going outside if you can.”

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