Tips for Treating COPD in the Winter

John W. WalshBy John W. Walsh, President and Co-Founder of the COPD Foundation

This year’s winter months have been marked by record-breaking cold, putting many Americans in danger. In Pennsylvania, where COPD is the fourth leading cause of death — taking 6,000 lives every year — individuals with COPD should be extra cautious.

COPD-related exacerbations occur twice as often in winter than in summer, and while hospitalization rates are constant throughout the year, COPD triggers are more life threatening in winter.

Exacerbations include:

  • An increase in frequency and severity of coughing
  • Increased production of phlegm (sputum or mucus) when coughing
  • A change in the appearance of the phlegm
  • Increased shortness of breath

Always seek prompt medical evaluation for signs of a COPD exacerbation flare. Without treatment, people may experience life-threatening breathing problems. To prevent exacerbations and keep your lungs working at peak levels, take your medicines, use antibiotics for infections, and follow these important tips:

Maintain COPD treatment

If your COPD is well managed, you will be better able to avoid and mitigate the severity of an exacerbation even if you get a cold or the flu.

Get flu and pneumonia shots

Getting your flu shot as early as possible in the flu season is important. Also, consult with your physician about getting a pneumonia vaccination to reduce your risk of infection.

Know your Alpha-1 Antitrypsin status

If you’ve been diagnosed with COPD, ask your doctor about being tested for Alpha-1 Antitrypsin, a condition in which the body does not make enough of a protein that protects the lungs and liver from damage deficiency, and a risk factor for developing COPD. If you have Alpha-1 but are not being treated specifically for this condition, you’re more likely to have an exacerbation, according to research conducted at the University of Chicago.

Avoid sick people

Use common sense in your social interactions. Stay away from hospitals, groups of children and anyone who has a cold.

Wash your hands

A high standard of hygiene is the best defense against germs. Before touching your eyes, nose or mouth make sure you have carefully washed or sanitized your hands, especially when you are in a public place.

Drink plenty of water

Drinking lots of water can make it easier to breathe, especially if you have a respiratory infection. Remember: you lose water with every breath.

Be aware of indoor threats

It’s important to keep the humidifier functioning at its optimal level in order to keep moisture in the air and prevent mold – another lung irritant.

Because we spend more time indoors during the winter, it’s important to clean your humidifier every other day to keep it functioning at its optimal level. This will help to keep moisture in the air and prevent mold – another lung irritant.

Avoid smoke and fumes

Heating your home during the winter can generate lung irritants, especially wood smoke from the fireplace, kerosene, scented candles and incense. Also, because we’re less likely to open the windows in the winter, cleaning products can aggravate your COPD.

Some COPD exacerbations require hospitalization, while others can be safely treated in an outpatient setting. In severe cases, people with COPD exacerbations may need to be on a ventilator, or breathing machine, until their flare-up resolves.

About the Author

John W. Walsh, who was diagnosed with Alpha-1-related genetic COPD in 1989, is the President and Co-Founder of the COPD Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to developing and supporting programs, which improve the quality of life through research, education, early diagnosis and enhanced therapy for persons whose lives are impacted by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).  He is also the Co-Founder of the Alpha-1 Foundation (a research organization) and AlphaNet, Inc. (a unique, not-for-profit disease management services company run by and for patients). He can be reached at 1-866-316-COPD (2673) or 

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