Staying Healthy During the Winter with COPD

Health Professional

When you have COPD, your airways are always at risk, because they are never as healthy as they could be. Winter presents some seasonal risks to your health that you need to be aware of, if you want to keep your airways as healthy as possible.

Cold Air

People all over the country have sure dealt with unusually cold air this winter I live in Boise, Idaho, and although it's in the mountain west, we have a high desert climate. Mountains are all around us, but here in the Boise River Valley, our climate tends to be fairly mild. Winter temps may dip into the 20s or even the teens at night, but during the day, we can expect 30s to 40s most of the winter.

This year, though, we had weeks of single digit weather... even during the day. And we weren't alone. My daughters live in Texas and have had a particularly cold, windy and unpleasant winter that is continuing even at this writing. Both the Northeast and even the southern parts of our country have had unusually harsh winter weather as well.

The bottom line is that there are very few places you could live in the U.S. and not have been subjected to frigid air this winter. And, unfortunately, cold air is a potent trigger for airway irritation if you have either COPD or asthma. What happens is that the cold air causes your airways to tighten even further than they already are. And that sets off coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, particularly if you breathe through your mouth.

So what can you do?

Well, obviously, the easy answer is to stay indoors as much as possible. But most people do need to go out from time to time, if only to visit the doctor or perhaps family. So, if you must go out, use these tips to avoid trouble:

  • Dress warmly to keep your core temperature up as much as possible.
  • Wear a scarf or neck gaiter that you can pull up over your mouth and nose to breathe through. This will warm the air before it hits your airways.
  • Be sure to always bring your rescue inhaler, in case symptoms start to arise while you are out.
  • If supplemental oxygen has been prescribed for you, bring it along, even if you don't normally use it continously.

Viruses, Bacteria and Other Germs

One of the biggest risks to health in people with COPD is respiratory infection. During the winter, there are just tons of germs floating around everywhere you go. On an outing to a public place, you could easily be exposed to the common cold, influenza, pneumonia or many other germs spread by airborne exposure.

If you should catch one of these infections, it could send your COPD out of control. It could even become life-threatening. So you should definitely take as many steps as possible to avoid coming into contact with these infectious organisms.

Here are a few action steps:

  • Get a flu shot EVERY year. Which flu organisms are circulating changes with the year, so it's important to get a flu vaccine each fall/winter that will help prevent infection from that year's circulating strain.

  • Keep your pneumonia immunization up to date. Pneumonia vaccines generally provide protection from 5 to 10 years, so check with your doctor as to when you need to update yours.

  • Avoid infected people. Ask family and friends not to visit you when they are sick, and avoid visiting them. Don't share glasses, straws or utensils.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly and often. Germs are often spread via hand contact with infected surfaces.

These are just a few tips to keep you healthy this winter. Staying in touch with your doctor and taking all your medications and using your oxygen as prescribed are also essential.