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How to manage COPD during winter

How to manage COPD during winter

COPD is a result of narrowing, damage or inflammation of the lungs. It is mostly commonly caused by smoking. However, 20% of people with COPD have never smoked. The condition can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes, but it's important to know how to manage flare-ups when extreme temperatures hit and your body becomes more susceptible to infections.

How does COPD affect people day-to-day?

COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD represents a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties. COPD includes emphysema (damage to the small air sacs in the lungs) and chronic bronchitis (long-term airway inflammation).

Dr Sameer Sanghvi says common symptoms of COPD include shortness of breath, persistent coughs with phlegm and frequent chest infections.

"Day-to-day, people with COPD are likely to have difficulty breathing, especially during physical activity, and may experience persistent wheezing," he says.

"Whilst occasionally getting out of breath is normal and healthy for many of us, persistently getting breathless from normal tasks like walking up the stairs or hoovering is a signal that something isn't quite right."

However, Dr Sanghvi explains how, unfortunately, many people with COPD aren't diagnosed until the later stages of the disease, or they're simply not diagnosed at all. That's despite the fact that millions of people live with COPD across the country.

Worldwide, in fact, COPD is an underdiagnosed condition, despite being the third leading cause of mortality. 50-90% of the disease burden remains undiagnosed. Leaving COPD undiagnosed, and therefore untreated, can cause the condition to progress faster, leading to heart problems and respiratory infections.

Can COPD get worse during winter, and how?

Dr Sanghvi says COPD can be triggered by extreme forms of weather. This includes the heat and cold.

"In the winter, cold and dry air can cause flare-ups. Temperatures below 3°C are particularly dangerous for people with COPD. This is because, when temperatures drop, your body has to work even harder to keep you warm," he says.

"In the extreme cold, your blood vessels begin to narrow. This restricts blood flow and deprives your heart of oxygen. That means your lungs have to work harder to provide oxygen through the bloodstream. This then adds even more pressure to the chronic symptoms that people with COPD experience."

During winter, people with COPD may notice that their symptoms worsen in response to the weather. It is thought that it is twice as likely for COPD symptoms to worsen during winter than in other seasons. The trigger of winter means that flare-ups are more common.

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What are the signs of a COPD flare-up?

Signs that you might be having a flare-up include:

  • Feeling more out of breath than usual/shallow breathing.
  • Wheezing.
  • Coughing more than usual.
  • Coughing up more mucus than usual
  • Mucus which is different in colour and/or consistency to your normal mucus.
  • Having a fever.
  • Swollen ankles.
  • Unusual tiredness.
  • General confusion.

Dr Sanghvi says that some flare-ups can be managed at home, but others may need immediate hospital attention.

How can you manage your COPD during the colder months?

Dr Sanghvi recommends covering your nose and mouth with a scarf or mask when you go out in winter time. This can help to warm the air before it reaches your airways. He also advises staying inside and avoiding strenuous activities where possible. This helps to minimise your exposure to dry air and reduce the risk of a flare-up. However, it is important not to avoid exercise altogether - this can worsen COPD symptoms.

Infections can also trigger flare-ups, so it's important to practise a healthy lifestyle. Wash your hands often and avoid crowded spaces. While you shouldn't isolate yourself during winter, you should be wise about where you go and practise good hygiene to keep germs at bay. This can help you avoid catching any other illnesses, since colds, flu, and pneumonia can all cause exacerbations of COPD.

Some other tips for managing your COPD this winter
These include:

  • Take care of your overall health - this includes getting plenty of sleep, drinking enough water and eating a balanced diet. It's particularly important to include enough protein and calcium in your diet if you have COPD.
  • Quit smoking. While COPD is not always caused by smoking (even people who have never smoked can develop COPD), it is a major risk factor.
  • Don't panic and do stick to your plan - if you have your COPD under control and already have a plan in place arranged with doctors, you will be less susceptible to catching infections. Continue to take any medication you have been prescribed, use your inhaler and consult your GP for advice on managing your symptoms.
  • Get your vaccines. If you have COPD, you're much more susceptible to becoming seriously unwell if you get a chest infection. You'll need to get an NHS flu vaccination every year for best protection. You should also make sure you've had an immunisation against pneumococcal disease, which can cause severe illness, including pneumonia - you just need one of these.
  • Exercise indoors - while working out can greatly improve both your overall and your lung health, it may be best to do this indoors. COPD patients are strongly encouraged to exercise, but the cold weather can make this uncomfortable, or even impossible, outside. If you're able to, exercise at home or at a gym. If not, warm up indoors for 15-20 minutes before exercising outdoors.
  • Avoid wood-burning stoves or fires - these can cause a COPD flare-up since patients are more vulnerable to smoke-related health problems. Exposing yourself to smoke can irritate your airways, but especially when combined with cold, dry air in winter.

Where can you find support and medical advice on managing COPD?

You should consult your GP if you are concerned about your COPD or want medical advice on managing it better. The British Lung Foundation also has lots of support and resources for people living with COPD.

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