Advice for treating and managing COPD symptoms during the winter

Written by Jesse Neumann. Posted in Respiratory Health Articles - Corner Medical Blog

Respiratory Image From the Respiratory Staff at Corner Medical

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Advice for treating and managing COPD symptoms during the winter

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Scott Cerreta, BS, RRT Director of Education for the COPD FoundationCOPD Foundation

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Many people who live with COPD face greater challenges than frigid temperatures and icy sidewalks during the winter months. Researchers who studied 7,000 people with COPD for one year found that COPD-related exacerbations occur twice as often in winter than in summer. The same study found that although hospitalization rates are constant throughout the year, COPD triggers are more life-threatening in winter.

Signs of a flare-up are a worsening of whatever your usual COPD symptoms are. These may include:

Low grade fever that doesn’t go away

Increased use of rescue medications

A change in the color, thickness, odor or amount of mucus

Tiredness that lasts more than one day

New or increased ankle swelling

You should always seek prompt medical evaluation for signs of a COPD exacerbation flare. Without treatment, people may experience life-threatening breathing problems.

You should always seek prompt medical evaluation for signs of a COPD exacerbation flare. Without treatment, people may experience life-threatening breathing problems.

Individuals can take steps to help prevent exacerbations and keep their lungs working at peak levels. Besides the usual means for preventing exacerbations, such as taking your medicines and using antibiotics and other medicines for infections or sinus problems, winter requires extra vigilance.


Do

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keep up with COPD treatment

get flu and pneumonia shots

know your Alpha-1 Antitrypsin status

avoid sick people

wash your hands

Don’t

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assume dressing for the cold is good enough

forget to clean your heating system

neglect drinking plenty of water

smoke

throw another log on the fire


Do

Do keep up with COPD treatment

If your COPD is well managed, you will be better able to avoid and mitigate the severity of exacerbation even if you get a cold or the flu. There are several medications approved for reducing the frequency of flare-ups for those who are prone to exacerbations. Ask your doctor about these.

Do get flu and pneumonia shots

While there does not seem to be a connection between exacerbations and specific strains of the flu, the flu can be dangerous for those with COPD. Therefore, getting your flu shot as early as possible in the flu season is important. Consult with your physician about getting a pneumonia vaccination to reduce your risk of infection.

Do know your Alpha-1 Antitrypsin status

If you’ve been diagnosed with COPD, ask your doctor to be 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.

Do avoid sick people

Use common sense when it comes to interacting with friends and family during the winter. For instance, if a friend has cold, wait until they’ve gotten over it before getting together for lunch, and you might want to skip visiting a friend in the hospital. Send a “Get Well” card instead.

Do wash your hands

A high standard of hygiene is the best defense against germs. Only touch your eyes, nose or mouth unless you have just washed or cleaned your hands with an antimicrobial hand sanitizer, especially when you are in a public place.


Don’t

Do not assume dressing for the cold is good enough

Cold air irritates the lungs. While covering your mouth and nose with a scarf enables you to keep the air moist in your lungs, it is better still to avoid being in the cold altogether. While inside, keep the air as warm and humid as possible.

Do not forget to clean your heating system

It’s easy to let this slide, but it’s important to keep your central heating system functioning at its optimal level in order to keep moisture in the air and prevent mold – another lung irritant. You should have the system inspected at the beginning of winter.

Do not neglect drinking plenty of water

Becoming dehydrated is easy to do in the winter months. Drinking lots of water can make it easier to breathe, especially if you have a respiratory infection. Keep in mind: you lose water with every breath.

Do not smoke

If you smoke, quitting smoking will result in an enormous reduction of exacerbations and an overall benefit in how you feel every day. Discuss with your doctor how to find the right medications, tools and resources that will help you quit.

Do not throw another log on the fire

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.


Summary

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Severe COPD exacerbations require treatment in the hospital for a few days, while others can be safely treated at home. In some severe cases, people with COPD exacerbations may need to be on a ventilator, or breathing machine, until their flare-up resolves.

The worse your underlying COPD, the more often you will have exacerbations. While acute exacerbations cannot be totally prevented, during the winter you can decrease how often you have them and how bad they are if you manage your care well and follow a few important guidelines.

Photo Credits: © Creativa – Fotolia.com; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas – Fotolia.

Scott Cerreta, BS, RRT is Director of Education for the COPD Foundation. He has been instrumental in developing multiple programs for COPD and tobacco prevention education, including the COPD Specialist Course, the Brief Tobacco Intervention Ski…