When the COPD patients in Respiratory Therapist Sandy Wright’s pulmonary rehab class were discouraged about having “bad air” days, she put them to work…not with a new routine on treadmills and bicycles, but in a much different way.
As we all know, the mystery of “good days – bad days” can be a real problem for people with COPD. Bad days, sometimes called by COPD’ers as “bad air” days, seem to come out of nowhere just when things are going along pretty well. For some people with COPD, bad air days lead to fear and worry, causing them to ask, “Am I getting an infection in my lungs? Is this the start of something really bad? Am I developing pneumonia? Will this lead to a stay in the hospital?” Or, most frightening of all, “Am I going “downhill,” will I ever feel better again, or is this “it?” These are all legitimate questions, certainly with cause for concern. But, take heart, because the answer might be as simple as looking out your door…or rather, at your weather gauge… or tuning into the local weather report.
Tracking the Weather and Your Breathing
Back to our folks in pulmonary rehab…Sandy began by explaining to the members of her COPD class that the weather can have a lot to do with bad breathing days. To help them see this for themselves, she had them do a study. “I told them to watch the local news every day and track the humidity, the barometric pressure and the dew point, and also to document how they were breathing on that day.”
Here are the results. “Some of my patients were more affected by the humidity while others were more affected by the dew point, which they were surprised about. The higher the dew point, the harder it was to breathe even if the other [weather] indicators were within normal limits.”
“So that was it in a nutshell. After this, they better understood that weather had something to do with their breathing, and they could plan their day accordingly and not get upset if they were having a bad breathing day. They knew it would pass and it wasn't that their disease state was getting worse.”
How Warm Weather Affects Breathing
So, how do weather extremes affect breathing in people with COPD?
Our bodies try to maintain a normal body temperature, which is about 98.6 F. When we are exposed to hot temperatures, we have to work harder to stay cool, making our bodies demand more oxygen. If you have COPD, you are already using a lot of energy just to breathe. So, it is not uncommon to experience a greater level of shortness of breath when exposed to extreme temperatures because your body has to use more energy to maintain a safe body temperature.
Here’s something else… If you have COPD, breathing hot air can make your bronchial tubes tighten up, making it harder to move air in and out of your lungs, increasing shortness of breath and making it harder to breathe.