COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a lung condition that makes it difficult to breathe. The condition is caused by long-term exposure to lung irritants, such as cigarette smoke or air pollution. People with COPD usually experience coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. These symptoms tend to get worse during extreme weather changes.
Very cold, hot, or dry air can trigger a COPD flare-up. Breathing may be more difficult when temperatures are below 32°F or above 90°F. Excessive wind can also make it harder to breathe. Humidity, ozone levels, and pollen counts can affect breathing as well.
Regardless of the stage or severity of your COPD, preventing flare-ups is crucial to feeling your best. This means eliminating exposure to certain triggers, such as:
- cigarette smoke
- chemicals from household cleaners
- air pollution
You should also protect yourself by staying indoors, as much as possible, on days of extreme weather.
If you must go outside, plan your activities during the mildest part of the day. When the temperatures are cold, you can cover your mouth with a scarf and breathe in through your nose. This will warm the air before it enters your lungs, which can help keep your symptoms from getting worse. During the summer months, you should try to avoid going outside on days when the humidity and ozone levels are high. These are indicators that pollution levels are at their worst. Ozone levels are lowest in the morning. An air quality index of 50 or less corresponds to ideal conditions for being outside.
According to Dr. Phillip Factor, Chief of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, sensitivity to humidity levels varies among people with COPD.
Dr. Factor explains, “Many patients with COPD have a component of asthma. Some of those patients prefer warm, dry climates, while others prefer more humid environments.”
In general, lower humidity levels are best for people with COPD. About 40 percent humidity is ideal in indoor and outdoor climates. It can be difficult to maintain indoor humidity levels during the winter months, especially in colder climates where heating systems are constantly running.
To achieve an optimal indoor humidity level, you can purchase a humidifier that works with your central heating unit. Alternatively, you can buy an independent unit that’s suitable for one or two rooms. Regardless of the type of humidifier you choose, be sure to clean and maintain it regularly. It’s important to follow the manufacturer’s directions, as many humidifiers have air filters that must be routinely washed or replaced. Home air filters in air conditioning and heating units should also be changed every three months.
Humidity can also be a problem while bathing. You should always run the bathroom exhaust fan while showering and open a window after showering, if possible.
The dangers of high indoor humidity
Too much indoor humidity can lead to an increase in common indoor air pollutants, such as dust mites, bacteria, and viruses. These irritants can make COPD symptoms much worse.
High levels of indoor humidity can also lead to mold growth inside the home. Mold is another potential trigger for people with COPD and asthma. Exposure to mold may irritate the throat and lungs, and it has been linked to worsening asthma symptoms. These symptoms include:
- increased coughing
- nasal congestion
- sore throat
- rhinitis (runny nose due to inflammation of the mucus membrane inside the nose)
People with COPD are especially sensitive to mold exposure when they have a weakened immune system.
To be certain that your home doesn’t have a mold problem, you should monitor any place in the house where moisture can build up. Here is a list of common areas where mold can thrive:
- roof or basement with flooding or rainwater leaks
- poorly connected pipes or leaky pipes under sinks
- carpet that remains damp
- poorly ventilated bathrooms and kitchens
- rooms with humidifiers, dehumidifiers, or air conditioners
- drip pans under refrigerators and freezers
Once you’ve located potentially problematic areas, take immediate steps to remove and clean hard surfaces. When cleaning, be sure to cover your nose and mouth with mask, such as an N-95 particle mask. You should also wear disposable gloves.
If you’ve been diagnosed with COPD and currently live in an area with high humidity levels, you may want to consider moving to a region with a dryer climate. Moving to a different part of the country may not fully get rid of your COPD symptoms, but it can help to prevent flare-ups. Before relocating, you should always visit the area at different times of the year. This will allow you to see how the weather may affect your COPD symptoms and overall health.