For people with severe, chronic illnesses like COPD, summer heat is not only uncomfortable, it can lead to dangerous complications.
Extreme Heat and Dyspnea
You are probably well aware of how dyspnea affects your quality of life. In extreme temperatures, however, your level of dyspnea can sometimes be far greater than normal. Why is this?
Extreme temperatures often 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 F. When we are exposed to extreme weather conditions, such as during the heat of summer, the body must expend extra energy to try and 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. So, it is not uncommon to experience a greater level of shortness of breath when you are exposed to extreme temperatures as your body is forced to use more energy while it struggles to maintain your body temperature.
Have you 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.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that between 1979 to 2003, there were 8,015 deaths related to heat. During this time, more people were reported to have died from extreme heat than from tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning, floods and earthquakes combined.
8 Tips for Beating Summer Heat
While we cannot control the weather, we can control our environment. Here are some steps you can take to beat the heat this summer and breathe easier:
1. Drink Plenty of Fluids
During the hot summer months, you should increase your fluid intake regardless of your activity level or thirst.
2. Wear Appropriate Clothing and Sunscreen
During the hottest time of the year, cool summer clothes and sunscreen are where it is at. Choose lightweight, light-colored, loose fitting garments. When you have a sunburn, it is 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.
3. Plan Your Activities Carefully
If you have to go outside, do so in the early morning hours or after the sun goes down. When driving, park in shady areas and choose places to go that are air conditioned. Place sun protectors in your car when it is parked.
4. Keep Your Cool Indoors
If it is possible, stay indoors in an air-conditioned building. 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.
5. Use the Buddy System
During the hot summer months, make sure to have friends or family members call at least twice a day to make sure you are OK. If you don't have a phone, ask neighbors, friends or relative to stop by your home each day.
6. Avoid Rigorous Exercise or Excess Activity
You will be better able to tolerate the heat if you avoid strenuous physical activity or exercise during hot days. If you do enjoy exercising, join a gym where the temperature is controlled or use a treadmill or other exercise machine in an air-conditioned room. Remember to drink plenty of fluids.
7. Take Your Medications as Directed
Remember to take your medications as directed by your doctor. If you are oxygen dependent, talk to your doctor about your oxygen requirements during the summer months.
8. Pay Attention to Weather Reports
Make it a point to watch or listen to the daily weather report alerting you to current weather conditions. Plan your activities during times of more moderate weather, devoid of extreme weather advisories.
Even short periods of extreme temperatures can cause serious illness and/or COPD complications. Knowing what to do in cases of excessive heat will not only help you keep your cool this summer but will also keep you safe.
Rotech Healthcare, Inc. Breathe Easy. "Weather and Breathing". Volume 15, Issue 1. 2005.
The Centers for Disease Control. "Extreme Heat: A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety". http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/heat_guide.asp