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5 Tips for Reducing Shortness of Breath in Cold Weather

Why Cold Air Causes Shortness Of Breath and What to Do About It

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Updated May 27, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Have you ever walked outside on a cold winter's day only to be met with a worsening of your COPD symptoms? Many COPD patients agree that cold weather and COPD can lead to an increase in dyspnea and wheezing that can be frightening and sometimes even dangerous. So what can COPD patients do to keep the cold air from taking their breath away? Here are a few helpful hints:

Don't Smoke

Cigarette smoke, in an of itself, is extremely irritating to the airways, containing more than 4,000 toxic chemicals. But, when you combine it with exposure to cold air, your symptoms of breathlessness can increase exponentially. Smoking causes COPD to progress at a much faster rate, leading to further disability and eventually death. If you have COPD, quitting smoking is the best way to slow the progression of the disease and improve your qualify of life, not to mention allowing you to breathe easier in all sorts of conditions, including cold weather.

Avoid Wood Burning Stoves or Fireplaces

People with lung problems are much more susceptible than healthy people to smoke-related health problems. Exposure to noxious particles from wood burning stoves or fireplaces causes both short, and long-term health consequences. It also irritates the airways, especially when you combine it with the inhalation of cold air, often worsening breathlessness. To stay warm, try an energy-efficient electric heater instead.

Exercise Indoors

COPD patients are strongly encouraged to exercise, but when cold weather makes it uncomfortable or even impossible, try exercising indoors. Exercising in the comfort of your own home or a gym is a safe alternative to exercising outdoors. If you must exercise outdoors, be sure to warm up indoors first, for at least 15 to 20 minutes.

Wear Protective Gear and Breathe Through Your Nose

Because cold air is very drying and irritating to the airways, it's no wonder that it can increase your breathlessness. Wearing protective gear (like a scarf over your nose and mouth or a cold weather mask) and breathing through your nose instead of your mouth warms and humidifies the inspired air before it gets to the airways, preventing shortness of breath related to cold air-induced bronchospasm.

Use Your Rescue Inhaler

Take a preventative dose of your rescue inhaler before going outdoors in cold weather, especially if you are planning on taking a walk or doing any type of exercise. A rescue inhaler contains a bronchodilator which opens up and relaxes the airways making it easier to breathe. You should also carry a rescue inhaler with you wherever you go, whether it be for a brisk walk around the block, or when you are out running errands.

Extreme temperatures can affect COPD patients differently than healthy people, whether it be extreme heat or extreme cold. Preparing in advance for winter cold or summer heat will ensure that you and your lungs will be protected, in spite of nasty weather conditions.

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