COPD Triggers and How to Avoid Them
Learn how to manage COPD by avoiding or limiting exposure to known triggers.
Common COPD Triggers
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a condition that limits the flow of air into and out of the lungs. Symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing. Certain actions or substances—called triggers—can cause COPD symptoms to suddenly worsen or flare-up. To manage COPD, it’s important avoid or limit exposure to known triggers.
Click through the slideshow to learn common COPD triggers and how to avoid them.
COPD Trigger: Weather
Temperature and weather can cause COPD symptoms to worsen. Cold, dry air or hot air can trigger a flare-up. According to the Canadian Lung Association and studies cited in the European Respiratory Review, extremes in temperature—below freezing and above 90 degrees F—are particularly dangerous. Add in other factors, such as wind and humidity, and the risk of a COPD flare-up increases.
Managing Cold Weather
In cold, windy weather, you should cover your nose and mouth while you are outdoors. A painter’s mask or scarf works well, or you can simply cup both hands together and hold them over your nose and mouth. Indoors, the air humidity should ideally be at 40 percent. You can maintain this percentage with a humidifier.
Managing Hot Weather
On extremely hot and humid days, there’s no better way to avoid a COPD flare-up than to simply stay indoors with the air-conditioner on. In fact, it’s really the only way to reduce the risk. Many people who have mid-to late-stage COPD will even move to a part of the country where the weather temperatures are more moderate.
COPD Trigger: Air Pollution
Whether it’s indoors or outside, air pollution can irritate the lungs and cause COPD symptoms to suddenly arise. Dust, pollen, ozone, and smog all spell trouble outdoors. Dust, pollen, pet dander, and chemicals from cleaning products, paint, or textiles can cause flare-ups indoors.
Managing Outdoor Air Pollution
People with COPD can protect themselves from outdoor pollutants much like they do with cold air. A painter’s mask is recommended if you have to be outside. If you do have to be outside, limit your exercise or physical activity. The best way to reduce the risk of a flare-up is to remain indoors, especially when smog or ozone levels are particularly high. Generally, ozone levels are highest between May and September and tend to be higher in the afternoons compared to mornings.
Managing Indoor Air Pollution
An air purifier can help filter many harmful irritants out of the air. For a more natural option, there are several plants that can help clean the air. Regular and thorough cleaning (especially dusting and vacuuming) can help reduce the risk of COPD flare-up. However, it is best if someone else—not the person with COPD—does the cleaning. Not only can the chemicals in cleaning products trigger symptoms, but also the dust that gets kicked up in the cleaning process. You may want to use natural cleaning products that do not have as many harmful irritants.
COPD Trigger: Infections
Infections that affect the lungs and airways are dangerous for a person suffering from COPD. Common bugs—such as the cold and flu—can exacerbate COPD symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, and short breath. If not treated properly, they could also lead to pneumonia, which can be life threatening.
The easiest ways to reduce your risk of infection is to wash your hands often and thoroughly and make sure you stay up to date on the recommended vaccinations (especially flu and pneumonia). Staying hydrated, practicing good hygiene, keeping your home sanitized, and avoiding crowded places or people who are sick are all good ways to reduce your risk of getting sick. If you do get a cold or the flu, it’s important to get treated as soon as possible.
COPD Trigger: Cigarette Smoke
The dangers of smoking have been vastly researched and documented. The risks to a person with COPD are numerous. Cigarette smoke contains tar and many toxic chemicals that irritate the lungs. Smoking also damages cilia, the tiny hairs that are responsible for cleaning the airways. All of these factors can increase the risk of infection and a flare-up in symptoms.
Avoiding Cigarette Smoke
No one should smoke, but this is especially true for people with COPD. If you have COPD, you should quit immediately. If you have already quit, you should do everything possible to stay smoke-free, as well as to avoid secondhand smoke. There are numerous smoking cessation options available on the market. Talk to your doctor about which ones are safe for you. Visit our Smoking Cessation Learning Center for more help quitting.