Common COPD triggers

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a condition that limits the flow of air in and out of the lungs. Symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath
  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • fatigue

Certain actions or substances can cause COPD symptoms to worsen or flare up. To manage COPD, it’s important to avoid or limit exposure to known triggers.

Temperature and weather can cause COPD symptoms to worsen. Cold, dry air or hot air can trigger a flare-up.

According to a study, temperature extremes, below freezing and above 90°F (32°C), are particularly dangerous.

Add in other factors, such as wind and humidity, and the risk of a COPD flare-up increases.

In cold, windy weather, you should cover your nose and mouth while 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, air humidity ideally should be at 40 percent. You can maintain this percentage with a humidifier.

On extremely hot and humid days, there’s no better way to avoid a COPD flare-up than to stay indoors with the air conditioner on, according to the National Emphysema Foundation.

In fact, it’s 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 weather temperatures are more moderate.

Whether outdoors or indoors, air pollution can irritate the lungs and cause COPD symptoms to suddenly flare up.

Outdoors, these allergens all spell trouble:

  • dust
  • pollen
  • smog

Other common outdoor allergens include:

  • odors from industrial plants or road construction
  • smoke from outdoor fires

Indoors, the COPD Foundationrecommends watching out for these allergens:

  • dust
  • pollen
  • pet dander
  • chemicals from cleaning products, paint, or textiles
  • smoke from fireplaces or cooking
  • mold
  • perfumes

People with COPD can protect themselves from outdoor pollutants much like they do in 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 levels are particularly high.

Some limited data suggests that high levels of ozone in the air may lead to COPD flare-ups.

Generally, ozone levels are highest between May and September, and tend to be higher in the afternoon than in the morning.

An air purifier can help filter many harmful irritants out of the air. For a more natural option, several plantscan help clean the air. Regular and thorough cleaning of your house, especially dusting and vacuuming, also can help reduce the risk of a COPD flare-up.

However, it’s best if someone other than the person with COPD does the cleaning. Chemicals in cleaning products can trigger symptoms and so can dust that gets kicked up in the cleaning process.

You may want to use natural cleaning products that don’t have as many harmful irritants. Additionally, the exertion itself may cause a flare-up.

Infections that affect the lungs and airways are dangerous for a person with COPD. Common bugs that cause colds and the flu can exacerbate COPD symptoms, such as:

  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue

If not treated properly, they can 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 to make sure you stay up-to-date on recommended vaccinations, especially for the flu and pneumonia.

The Cleveland Clinic also recommends that you:

  • stay hydrated
  • practice good hygiene
  • keep your home sanitized
  • avoid crowded places and people who are sick to reduce your risk of getting an infection

If you do get a cold or the flu, it’s important to treat it as soon as possible.

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 the cilia, the tiny hairs responsible for cleaning the airways.

These factors can increase the risk of infection and a flare-up of symptoms.

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 and to avoid secondhand smoke.

There are many smoking cessation options available. Talk to your doctor about which ones are safe for you.

Managing or avoiding your triggers is the best first step to easing COPD symptoms. But sometimes that isn’t enough.

Here are some resources to help manage COPD: