Chronic illness warrior and natural health coach and advocate, Gina helps others thrive beyond the challenges of chronic illness.
As I write this I struggle to breathe. COPD can be a real b***h for me in the summer, especially when it gets really hot. Yesterday was particularly challenging. Whenever I think of whipping out that bulky, heavy cylinder of an oxygen tank from its resting place, you know I am having a challenging day.
What is COPD?
What is COPD?
COPD is often a mix of two diseases:
- Chronic bronchitis (say "bron-KY-tus"). In chronic bronchitis, the airways that carry air to the lungs (bronchial tubes ) get inflamed and make a lot of mucus. This can narrow or block the airways, making it hard for you to breathe.
- Emphysema (say "em-fuh-ZEE-muh"). In a healthy person, the tiny air sacs in the lungs are like balloons. As you breathe in and out, they get bigger and smaller to move air through your lungs. But with emphysema, these air sacs are damaged and lose their stretch. Less air gets in and out of the lungs, which makes you feel short of breath.
COPD gets worse over time. You can't undo the damage to your lungs. But you can take steps to prevent more damage and to feel better.
What is COPD?
"You have emphysema."
My emphysema diagnosis
I clearly remember the day that I was diagnosed with mild emphysema. I had come in complaining of shortness of breath. That was not unusual because I had been diagnosed with asthma some years prior. My doctor walks into the office where I was seated, looked me into my face and said, "You were wrongly diagnosed. You have emphysema. Usually I would follow up that statement with 'You need to stop smoking,' but you've never smoked a day in your life."
We then went through a series of questions, and it was determined that my ovarian surgery, during which I flat-lined and was placed on a ventilator, may have contributed to the emphysema. No one was really sure. In either case I was put on even stronger lung medications.
The rest is history.
Symptoms of COPD
When you have COPD:
- You have a cough that won't go away.
- You often cough up mucus.
- You are often short of breath, especially when you exercise.
- You may feel tightness in your chest.
Coughing and wheezing with COPD
Exacerbation or worsening of COPD
According to the COPD Foundation, signs of acute exacerbation include:
- Wheezing, or more wheezing than normal
- Excessive coughing
- Dypsnea, or shortness of breath that is worse than usual
- An increase in mucus
- Change in the color of your mucus to yellow, green, tan or bloody
- Shallow or rapid breathing more than normal
- Fever/Confusion or excessive sleepiness
- Swelling in the feet or ankles
Dyspnea or shortness of breath with COPD
One of the primary complaints of patients with COPD is dyspnea, or shortness of breath.
When the temperature heats up, your level of dyspnea can sometimes be far greater than normal, and can result in stress to the entire body. If we think about how our bodies react to stress, we may be able to better understand the phenomenon of how temperature affects breathing.
The body is always working to try to maintain a normal body temperature, which is about 98.6 degrees F. When we are exposed to extreme weather conditions, such as during the heat of summer, the body must expend extra energy to try to cool itself down in order to maintain a normal body temperature.
This extra energy requirement causes the body to demand more oxygen. If you have COPD, you are already using much of your energy just to breathe, not to mention everything else that you do during the day. .
If you have ever stepped outside on a really hot day and taken in a deep breath, the result is often startling. For people with COPD whose airways are already inflamed and irritated, breathing hot air can worsen this, leading to bronchospasm.
During a bronchospasm, the smooth muscle of the airways contract, which decreases the size of the airways.
This makes it more difficult to get air into or out of the lungs, which also will increase shortness of breath and make it harder to breathe.
COPD and the summer heat
COPD and the Summer heat
The summer months can spell trouble for those with respiratory ailments. As outdoor temperatures rise, so does the risk of landing in the hospital.
For people, like myself, with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, for short, summer heat is not only uncomfortable, it can lead to dangerous complications. Extreme heat and humidity can worsen COPD symptoms, including increased shortening of breath and bronchospasms.
As summer approaches and the temperature rises, you may be wondering what you can do to keep well in the hot weather, especially if you've noticed that high temperatures cause your symptoms to flare up.
Yesterday I noticed that I was having extreme difficulty breathing. During my usual martial arts workout, I happened to glance down at my feet and noticed how "fat" they were. My feet had already started to swell. The difficulty breathing was my first tell-tale sign, but the swelling was another.
If you know you’re affected by hot weather, there are things you can do to help keep yourself well.
I will provide some tips for you.
Tips for coping with COPD during the extreme summer heat.
- Keep out of the sun.
- Avoid the heat.
- Take cool baths or showers.
- Stay hydrated.
- Exercise sensibly.
- Eat as normal.
- Wear appropriate clothing.
- Keep your house cool.
- Use a fan.
- Pack a bag of essentials.
- Plan your activities carefully.
- Check pollution and pollen count before venturing outdoors.
- Use the buddy system.
I will expand on each of these.
Stay out of the sun.
Keep out of the sun.
If you do need to go out during the day, avoid being in the sun for long stretches. Wear loose, cool clothing and a hat.
Certain antibiotics and medications like pirfenidone can make you more sensitive to sunlight. If you’re taking one of these medications, you’ll burn more quickly, so make sure you cover up and wear high factor sun cream. Always check the information leaflet that came with your medication.
If it is possible, stay indoors in an air-conditioned building.
Avoid the heat.
Avoid the heat.
Avoid the heat? Didn't you just say that? Not really. You could be outside in the shade and it could still feel extremely hot, even with a nice wind blowing through. I remember trying to sit under a tree. The heat was still unbearable.
If a heatwave is forecast, don’t go outside during the hottest time of day, normally between 11 am and 3 pm. If you have to go out, plan your day around the early morning or evening when the air is cooler.
Take a cool bath or shower.
Take cool baths or showers.
If you feel overheated, take a cool bath or shower or splash yourself with cool water.
During the hot summer months, you should increase your fluid intake regardless of your activity level or thirst.
Have a drink of cold water regularly even if you don’t feel thirsty – it’s important to stay hydrated. Avoid alcohol, which makes you pee more and causes you to dehydrate.
Exercise brings a lot of benefits if you have a lung condition, but in hot weather you should take care to avoid overheating. Do your exercise indoors in a cool, well-ventilated room or gym. Try to do activities like housework and gardening in the early morning or evening when it’s cooler.
If you do get breathless, use some breathing control techniques to ease the symptoms.
During a very hot spell, you may want to think about reducing or avoiding strenuous activity until the weather cools down. You will be better able to tolerate the heat if you avoid strenuous physical activity or exercise during hot days.
COPD and nutrition
Eat as normal.
Try to eat as normal – even if you aren’t hungry. You need a normal diet to replace the salt you lose through sweating. Cold foods like salad and fruit are particularly good because they contain a lot of water.
During the summer months, I tend to drink a lot of fruit smoothies with lots of nutritive additive such as chia seeds and veggies. I can usually pack a lot of nutrition into a fruit and veggie smoothie rather than try to eat a couple of apples or bananas during the day. Smoothies do pack a punch.
Obviously I keep a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables available during the summer months. These do not tend to last long in my home as everyone loves fresh.
Wear appropriate clothing and sunscreen
A sunburn makes it even more difficult for your body to cool itself, so be sure to wear sunscreen every day, even if you are not planning to be in the direct sunlight. Keep cool by wearing lightweight, light-colored, loose fitting garments.
Coolibar UPF 50+ Women's Beach Shirt
Essentials for the heat
Anti-UV Sun protective Wide Brim Reversible Sun Hat
Keep your house cool.
Keep your house cool.
I personally love to open my blinds at the first opportunity that I get to let the sunshine through, but closing blinds or curtains can help to keep your house cool. If it’s cooler in your house than outside, close the windows to keep the cool air in. At night when the air outside is cooler, open your windows if it’s safe to do so.
If you don't have air conditioning, plan your day to involve going to places that do, for example the library, a shopping mall or a friend or family member's home that is air conditioned. Take a cool shower or bath to lower your body temperature. Avoid activities that involve utilizing extra energy. Call your local health department to see if they can recommend a heat-relief shelter in your area.
Use a fan.
Use a fan.
Try using a handheld fan. Hold it about six inches away and let the cool air blow towards the centre of your face. Remember to keep your fan clean, so that you don’t blow dust into your face. A floor standing fan or desktop fan can also help, and you may sleep better if you have a fan in your bedroom at night.
I am blessed to have overhead fans, which I keep running all year, pretty much. If you have these, please remember to clean them periodically as dust will build up and create polluted air in your home. I'll discuss keep your indoor air clean in another article.