The Heat and COPD: What You Need to Know

  • May 16, 2019
The Heat and COPD: What You Need to Know

The summer is fast approaching and after a long, cold winter, many people are breathing a collective sigh of relief to feel the warmth of the sun again. Some, however, worry about health risks associated with warmer weather; from concerns about melanoma from the sun to dehydration to heat stroke, summer can be a stressful time for seniors.

Especially for those seniors who are living with COPD. Those suffering from this chronic respiratory illness are vulnerable to the impact of the hottest days of the calendar year. And with the effects of climate change seemingly more intense with every passing year, the dangers related to sustained heat waves are becoming greater public health issues all the time.

What is COPD?

Approximately 15 million Americans are living with a diagnosis of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD), a condition which typically refers to a group of diseases resulting in an airflow blockage and difficulty breathing. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the two most common conditions associated with COPD, which are both marked by the COPD symptoms of coughing, wheezing, and tightness in the chest.

A COPD diagnosis typically isn’t delivered until significant lung damage has occurred. For example, according to the Mayo Clinic, a chronic bronchitis diagnosis requires the presentation of “a daily cough and mucus (sputum) production at least three months a year for two consecutive years.” Additional COPD symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activity

  • Wheezing

  • Tightness in the chest

  • Clearing excess mucus from your throat first thing in the morning

  • A blue tint on the lips or fingertips

  • Frequent respiratory infections

  • Fatigue or lack of energy

  • Swelling in the feet and legs

In most instances, smoking is believed to be a leading cause for the COPD.

COPD and Summer Heat

So, what is COPD in relation to the heat? Individuals living with COPD are likely to experience even greater respiratory difficulty when it gets hot out. With or without a respiratory disease, humans tend to find breathing in the hot weather to be less comfortable.  In fact, breathing in hot air can cause something called a bronchospasm, in which the airways contract. But for those living with COPD, this discomfort can actually manifest as a serious health concern since the airways are already inflamed and irritated.

However, it’s not just outdoor heat that causes a problem for those with breathing issues during the summer months. Elevated temperatures indoors can cause an increase in dust and particulates in the air, which can worsen COPD symptoms for many people.

Reducing the Risk Of COPD

While we can’t make the sun any less oppressive on a really hot day, we can regulate the temperature in our own homes. If you have COPD but your house lacks proper air-conditioning, you should strongly consider installing an air-conditioning window unit. The cost is low but the benefits are huge.

In addition to finding ways to better regulate your indoor temperatures during the summer, COPD symptoms can be controlled in the following ways:

  1. Drink lots of fluids. Due to the fact that the summer sun can easily dehydrate the body, drinking fluids throughout the day—even if you don’t particularly feel thirsty—can help you prevent a medical emergency. When you have COPD, dehydration can have a negative impact on mucus production, making it harder to clear the mucus from your lungs and straining your breathing.  

  2. Get some sun. There have been studies linking COPD to vitamin D deficiency, which can be resolved, in part, by spending time in the sun. Although it’s best to limit sun exposure on especially hot days, if you do want to soak up some sun, be sure to wear plenty of sunscreen and stay hydrated to avoid a flare up while you’re outside.

  3. Plan ahead. If you know you are going to be outside on a hot day, try to schedule your day in a way that limits your time outdoors and allows you to take a break from the heat in an air-conditioned space. Also, check the weather report ahead of time to make sure that there are no heat index alerts that could flare up your COPD symptoms.

  4. Take it easy. Since physical activity can exacerbate COPD symptoms, taking the time to rest on especially hot days can be beneficial to your health. Although exercise has been proven to help those with COPD maintain their health, abstaining from exercise on hot days can serve you by helping you avoid a flare-up.

  5. Invest in a medical alert device. Since a COPD medical episode can require immediate medical attention, investing in a medical alert device can ensure that you remain connected to help when you need it. And if you purchase a mobile medical alert device, you will have the added protection of being able to connect to help outside the house as well.

While COPD is a chronic disease that can affect your health year round, those living with the condition need to exercise caution during the warmer months in order to maintain their health. If you or a loved one are struggling with your COPD symptoms, talk to a physician about it immediately.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hilary Young is a health and wellness expert that specializes in both senior life and caregiving. She'd love to hear more about your thoughts on aging, healthy living, and caregiving, and you can find her on Twitter at @hyoungcreative to start the conversation.


KEYWORDS: what is COPD, COPD symptoms, chronic bronchitis