Preparing for Winter with COPD

COPD exacerbations, more commonly referred to as COPD flare-ups, are twice as likely to occur in winter as in summer due, in part, to the improved survival of lung viruses in colder weather.[1] In addition, between the months of November and February, you’re more likely to be hospitalized as a result of an exacerbation, experience anxiety and depression and a decrease in physical activity.[2] Frequent exacerbations contribute to a decline in lung function and overall health status.

To reduce the number of COPD flare-ups and stay healthier during the winter season, consider the following tips:

  • Get vaccinated – Vaccination with both the flu and pneumonia vaccines may produce an additive effect that reduces COPD flare-ups more effectively than with either vaccine alone.[3] People with COPD should consider an annual flu vaccine as early in the season as they become available. Moreover, ask your doctor if you need a pneumonia vaccine as well.
  • Keep your furnace filters and ductwork clean – To reduce dust and airborne contaminants that can irritate your lungs and trigger a worsening of COPD symptoms, replace your furnace filters regularly during the winter months and have your ducts inspected for mold at least once a year.
  • Reduce time spent outdoors – Being exposed to cold air is irritating to the air passages and may trigger a flare-up. Stock up on food and supplies early in the season to reduce trips to the store and unnecessary outdoor exposure to the cold.
  • Stay away from sick people – Avoiding people who are sick decreases your risk of developing a respiratory infection that could lead to a COPD flare-up. It’s also important to steer clear of crowds to reduce the chances of coming into contact with someone who is sick.
  • Wash your hands frequently – Handwashing is one of the most important things you can do to prevent a COPD flare-up. If soap and water are unavailable, practice hand hygiene in between washing your hands by using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid smoke and fumes – With smoke from wood burning stoves and fireplaces and fumes from harsh cleaning products, indoor air can be just as polluted as outdoor air. Have your wood burning appliances and fireplaces serviced annually to ensure they are in good working order before you use them. Use environmentally friendly cleaning products to reduce exposure to potentially toxic fumes.
  • Stay well-hydrated – Drinking plenty of fluids (unless your doctor tells you otherwise) helps loosen mucus that has the potential to block your air passages, a common problem in COPD, especially during a COPD flare-up.
  • Layer up to keep warm – Winter chill can have serious health effects on your body. When temperatures drop, beat the cold by dressing in layers. Make sure your outer layer is weather resistant in case you’re exposed to rain or snow.
  • Humidify the air you breathe – If dry indoor air irritates your air passages and triggers your symptoms, try using a humidifier to maintain the humidity in your home at an ideal 40 percent. Be sure to wear a scarf over your nose and mouth when you go outdoors and breathe through your nose to naturally humidify outdoor air.

[1] Donaldson, G C, and J A Wedzicha. “COPD Exacerbations · 1: Epidemiology.”Thorax 61.2 (2006): 164–168. PMC. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

[2] Donaldson GC, Goldring JJ, Wedzicha JA. Influence of season on exacerbation characteristics in patients with copd.Chest. 2012;141(1):94-100. doi:10.1378/chest.11-0281.

[3] Varkey, Jay B., et. al.Prophylactic Vaccinations in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: Current Status.” Curr Opin Pulm Med. 2009;15(2):90-99.

By Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN


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