Can the Cold Exacerbate COPD and Cystic Fibrosis Symptoms?

Woman living with COPD outside

As we brace ourselves for another winter season, many people living with COPD and cystic fibrosis are taking extra precautions this year to protect their lungs against the colder temperatures and drier air conditions, all of which are known to exacerbate symptoms.[1]

In a previous article, we shared some common triggers you should avoid and how to prevent COPD flare-ups during the winter. Among the list of common triggers was drier air conditions.

Why Does Dry Air Cause Respiratory Issues?

Woman using lotion on dry skin of handsWhen the temperatures drop the air loses moisture, and as a result, we experience lower humidity levels. This is why your doctor may recommend the use of a humidifier in your home to help introduce moisture back into your environment.

Because our bodies actively respond to a loss in humidity, you may notice your hands and skin look drier or that your throat feels scratchy or parched. As your body loses more water from the dryness, your mucus, which is responsible for trapping inhaled germs and preventing them from spreading to the rest of your body, becomes thinner. What happens next is your mucus is less likely to block those same germs, leaving you more vulnerable to the common cold or flu.[2]

If you’re living with a preexisting respiratory condition, you may find it more difficult to manage your symptoms during the winter months. According to the National Emphysema Foundation, “breathing in cold, dry air causes the airways to narrow, therefore restricting airflow in and out of the lungs and making it more difficult to breathe.”[3]

The American Lung Health Institute further emphasizes how cold air can affect more than just your ability to breathe; it can also affect your heart health: “The lungs provide oxygen to the bloodstream and the heart pumps blood, delivering oxygen to various parts throughout the body. With an onset of low to extreme temperatures [,] blood vessels begin to narrow, restricting blood flow and depriving the heart of oxygen.”[4]

So, now that we know the effects of cold weather and drier air conditions on our lungs and other vital organs, let’s discuss how these conditions can create a worsening of COPD or cystic fibrosis symptoms.

Can the Cold Make COPD Worse?

The answer is yes! As we’ve noted before, cold, drier air can restrict airflow in your lungs, making breathing more difficult. In addition, because your sinuses (more specifically, your mucus production) is affected by drier conditions, you may be more prone to seasonal infections (like the cold or flu). But shortness of breath and respiratory infections aren’t the only COPD symptoms that may worsen from changes in the weather.

 Other common COPD symptoms may include:

Symptoms of COPD

  • Wheezing
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent Coughing

Because cold, drier air conditions dramatically affect humidity levels, a patient living with COPD may experience a narrowing of the airways or spasms, also known as bronchospasm.[5] This condition can cause shortness of breath, wheezing, and frequent coughing.[6]  And as we discussed in a recent article on COPD fatigue, obstructed airways and labored breathing can cause a person to experience an increase in chronic fatigue.[7]

Can the Cold Make Cystic Fibrosis Worse?

Unlike COPD, there is less research on the effects of cold, drier air conditions on patients living with cystic fibrosis (CF) vs. COPD.[8] However, as noted above, the colder climates leave many people, living with CF and not living with CF, more vulnerable to seasonal colds and flus.

So, when CF patients contract a virus or illness, they often experience a worsening of symptoms: “Some germs (like the viruses that cause colds, the flu and RSV) affect people with and without CF. But when people with CF get a respiratory virus, they may get sicker because of their lung disease.”[9]

Stay Safe; Stay Well This Winter

Looking for tips on how to protect your lungs from flare ups? We encourage you to browse our collection of COPD resources and articles for tips on living with COPD in the winter.

If you’d like to learn how the SmartVest Airway Clearance System can help you manage your lung condition and find year-long relief from your chronic symptoms, request a patient packet today!


Resources:

[1] The Lung Institute. “The Danger of Cold Weather and COPD.” Retrieved from https://lunginstitute.com/blog/the-danger-of-cold-weather-and-copd/

[2] Cleveland Clinic. “How Dry Winter Air Can Cause Respiratory Problems—From Bronchitis to Nosebleeds.” Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/can-best-combat-effects-dry-winter-air/#:~:text=Cold%20winter%20air%20is%20dry,sucked%20up%20into%20the%20air.

[3] National Emphysema Foundation. “Protecting Yourself from Cold Air.” Retrieved from https://www.emphysemafoundation.org/index.php/prevention/pollution-and-the-environment/85-pollution-and-the-environment-articles/190-protecting-yourself-from-cold-air

[4] The Lung Institute. “The Danger of Cold Weather and COPD.” Retrieved from https://lunginstitute.com/blog/the-danger-of-cold-weather-and-copd/

[5] Medical News Today. “Humidity Levels and COPD.” Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323657

[6] Fairview. “Bronchospasm (Adult).” Retrieved from https://www.fairview.org/patient-education/115807EN#:~:text=Bronchospasm%20occurs%20when%20the%20airways,allergic%20reaction%20of%20the%20airways.

[7] Medical News Today. “How to Cope with COPD Fatigue.” Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323064

[8] CysticFibrosis.com. “Navigating Weather with Cystic Fibrosis.” Retrieved from https://cystic-fibrosis.com/living/weather-effects/#:~:text=Colder%20weather%20or%20wintertime%20with,weather’s%20impact%20on%20CF%20symptoms.

[9] Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. “Lung Health: What You Should Know About Germs.” Retrieved from https://www.cff.org/PDF-Archive/Lung-Health—-What-You-Should-Know-About-Germs/

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