When the weather changes, people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) will most likely notice it as a change in their breathing. Weather extremes can cause COPD exacerbations for different reasons, but even the typical summer heat can create poor conditions for anyone with a respiratory illness.
In this blog post, we will discuss why normal summer heat can be dangerous for people with COPD, and then we will go over some ways to stay safe.
Why is the Summer Heat Dangerous for People with COPD?
Summer heat can negatively affect local air quality and trigger exacerbations in people with respiratory illnesses like COPD and asthma in several ways:
1. Summer Heat Results in More Smog
During hot days, the heat in the air cooks the pollution already present in the air and creates smog (1). When this happens, the density of the pollution increases, which essentially means a higher concentration of air pollutants that can trigger more COPD exacerbations (2).
2. High Heat Traps More Particles in the Air
During times of high heat, the air generally becomes stagnant and denser, which can ultimately trap more particles and lung irritants (3). When you combine this with the creation of more smog due to the high heat, air quality worsens dramatically.
3. Heat Can Trigger Wildfires
In areas where the landscape is parched, high heat can create a perfect environment for wildfires. When fires spread, the smoke and scorched particles can become airborne and increase to lung irritants.
4. High Humidity Encourages Mold Growth
Mold loves heat and moisture. If you live in an area where humidity is high and the temperature is hot, expect mold growth to increase. Whether indoors or outdoors, mold can trigger exacerbations in people with COPD and asthma.
5. Increased Dehydration Rate
One of the reasons our bodies require water is to keep our defense mechanisms intact. The lungs are particularly affected when dehydration sets in because it affects our ability to remove foreign particles from our lungs. Also, certain medications can increase sweating, which can cause dehydration to occur even sooner.
6. Faster Rates of Fatigue
People with COPD generally use up more energy to breathe than other individuals. However, on hot days, our bodies use even more energy to stay cool. So when you combine the high energy requirements for both breathing and staying cool, fatigue can set in much faster in people with COPD.
How to Cope and Stay Safe During the Summer Heat
Now that we have gone over how high summer heat can worsen air quality and trigger COPD exacerbations, let us go over how to cope with COPD symptoms during hot summer weather:
1. Check the Weather and Air Quality
If you live in an urban area where pollution is high, you can bet that hot summer days will worsen air quality. It is best to get in the habit of checking the weather before going out during the summer to get a sense of whether hotter days are affecting your breathing.
2. Limit Time Outdoors
You do not need to avoid going outdoors altogether. However, try to get outside activities done early in the morning or later in the day to avoid the midday heat. Avoid strenuous activities or excessive exercise outdoors when it is hot outside. Finally, if you do go out, remember to wear light-colored, loose clothing.
3. Stay In Cool Indoor Areas
During the day when it is hot, be sure to use an air conditioner, swamp cooler or fans when indoor and change the air filters regularly. If your residence does not have any cooling options, look to go to a place where there is air conditioning during the times where the heat is excessive. While this can help be comfortable during the summer heat, the air indoors has pollution and on hot days can also increase the risk of a COPD exacerbation (4).
4. Stay Hydrated
Carry a water bottle with you to help you remember to hydrate. Doing so will help to keep your natural respiratory defense mechanisms intact. By just keeping a water container with you that can be filled regularly as you are out, will help you drink more and keep your respiratory function working well.
5. Take It Easy
During hot days, it is a good idea to take it easy. Limit the amount of strenuous activities and do not do any work or activities that will make your body work harder than normal. Cancel or reschedule things if possible that will keep you outside and in the heat for prolonged periods or keep you away from places where you can rest or get cooler if needed. Make sure to watch the local news or look up the air quality in your area to determine if it is better to limit the day’s activities or which things would be ok to do.
6. Let Others Know When You Do Go Out
If you must go out for any reason, make sure to let someone you trust know, so they can find you if you run into an emergency.
Hot summer weather is enjoyable if you are by the beach—where the air is cleaner. However, in urban areas, the heat can worsen air quality significantly. That said, with a little preparation to play it safe, you can still enjoy yourself and get things done on hot days with COPD.
Information on this page is for reference and educational purposes only. For more information about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), talk to your doctor or primary care provider.
- Breathe: The Lung Association. Heat and Humidity. https://www.lung.ca/news/expert-opinions/pollution/heat-and-humidity
- Teqoya. Air Pollution: The Heat Factor. https://www.teqoya.com/air-pollution-the-heat-factor/
Updated: August 6, 2019
Published: May 13, 2013