COPD: Good Days, Bad Days and Weather

Health Professional

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.

Tips for Better Breathing in Hot Weatherink Plenty of Water
Even if you’re not thirsty, try to drink two quarts of water a day (unless your doctor has told you to restrict your fluid intake due to a heart condition). This sounds like a lot, but your body will get used to it – and it will thank you for it People often ask if other fluids count in this intake. Not if they’re coffee, tea, or soda with caffeine! You can count clear juices as part of the two quarts, but good old water is best.

Plan Your Activities
If you have to go outside, go out in the early morning or later at night, after the sun goes down.

Don’t Get Into a Hot Car
Park in shady areas, when possible. When it’s not, set up sun protectors in your car. If it is necessary to park outside overnight, invest in a remote car starter. Before you get out of your car at the end of the day, turn the air conditioning and fan up to the highest settings. Then, about five to ten minutes before you have to get in your car the next day, click the starter and you’ll be off to a much cooler (and safer) start when you get behind the wheel.

Stay Cool
If at all possible, stay indoors in an air-conditioned building. If you don't have air conditioning, go to places that do; the library, the mall, a coffee shop, bookstore, or a friend or family member's home that is air conditioned. Take a cool shower or bath to lower your body temperature.

Exercise Smart
Avoid strenuous physical activity or outdoor exercise during hot days. Stay inside, and at the very least, do your stretches and resistance or weight training. Or walk in a mall or through the perimeter aisles of a “big box” store.

Even in extreme weather, you can breathe better by understanding how conditions affect your breathing and by planning ahead. Here’s wishing you more good air days than bad ones!

Jane M. Martin is a licensed respiratory therapist, teacher and the founder and director of and author of Breathe Better, Live in Wellness.