A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

A nasty mix: Extreme temps and COPD

graphic - Heat affects COPDExtreme temperatures and COPD generally don’t pair well — certainly not fine wine and cheese.

That’s because hot, humid air, and more often temperatures below freezing, can lead to a worsening of Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disorder (COPD) symptoms, or exacerbations, and ultimately more hospitalizations.

COPD affects more than 24 million people in the U.S., including 5 percent of people in Wisconsin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the COPD foundation.

The heat is on

When it comes to hot and humid summer air, it can make people with COPD feel worse because the air is “thicker,” or filled with moisture. This gives the sensation that it’s harder to breathe, said Dr. Craig Wolfe, a Marshfield Clinic pulmonologist.

The medical oddity, though, is most often breathing tests on people complaining of difficulty breathing due to hot air show no signs of worsening air intake.

“Also, some people with COPD actually feel better when they breathe hot air,” Wolfe said. “It’s a very individualized disease and reactions to extreme temperatures vary greatly from one person to the next.”

One theory is that hot air dries out a person’s airways, making them more sensitive, thus leading to an increase in symptoms such as coughing and shortness of breath. But, this hasn’t been proven, Wolfe said.

So what do you do if hot, humid air does lead to worsening symptoms?

Common sense-solutions are best. Stay indoors in a controlled climate with air conditioning, Wolfe said.

The general guideline is to avoid temperatures over 90 degrees, but Wolfe said it’s simpler than that. If you feel worse in certain weather, note the temperature and avoid it in the future.

Also, if symptoms such as cough, fever and an increase and/or change in color of mucus last more than two days seek medical help.

“You need to see your health care provider because it may be more than an environmental issue and the infection will not go away when weather improves,” Wolfe said. “Earlier diagnosis can help you often avoid less serious illness.”

Cold air causes more problems

While hot air isn’t ideal, cold air – especially during Wisconsin winters – is even worse for anyone with COPD.

Air temperatures below freezing, 32 degrees, cause the muscles wrapped around the air tubes connected to your lungs to spasm, which makes it more difficult to breathe. While cold air makes it more difficult for healthy people to breathe, too, it’s worse for folks with COPD because they have overly sensitive airways.

Wolfe said he sees most flare-ups in winter, and offers this common-sense advice to his patients:

  • Avoid the outdoors when possible, if temperatures drop below freezing.
  • Cover your mouth with a scarf or other garment to filter cold air.
  • If you use oxygen, keep oxygen-tank hoses inside your coat to avoid chilling the air you breathe.

Cold air affects everyone differently, but often is worse for anyone with decreased lung capacity.

“Patients with underlying lung disease have less reserve oxygen than those with normal lung function,” Wolfe said. “For that reason, they’re affected more by decreases in lung function caused by changes in the environment.”

The quality of the air your breath is also very important for patients with COPD.  Check out our article on indoor air quality for more information.

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