Breathing is one of those things it’s easy to take for granted. If you don’t have lung conditions or breathing problems, it’s simple enough to inhale, exhale and repeat without giving it a second thought.
But if you have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other lung disorders, breathing isn’t always so easy. You may find that factors such as air temperature, humidity, allergens and other factors related to the weather and climate can make a difference in whether you’re breathing comfortably or reaching for your medication.
James Knepler, MD, an interventional pulmonologist at Banner Health in Tucson, AZ, filled us in on how the weather and climate can affect how well you can breathe.
The trigger: Cold, dry air
“Cool, dry air can trigger bronchospasms in people with asthma and COPD,” Dr. Knepler said. “People who play winter sports tend to have more issues with asthma.” Cold air doesn’t cause asthma, but it can worsen symptoms.
If you’re exposed to cold, dry air a lot, using a humidifier in your home can help. Just remember to empty the water frequently and clean it according to the manufacturer’s directions. Otherwise, it can breed germs and mold.
If you are outside when it’s cold, wrap a loose-fitting scarf around your nose and mouth. That way, the air you breathe in won’t be as cold—the scarf will help warm it. Breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth can also help.
Take your controller medications and keep your quick-relief medications with you in case symptoms crop up.
The trigger: hot, humid air
Interestingly, temperature extremes in either direction can make lung diseases flare. “It’s harder to breathe in hot, humid weather, so you risk exacerbations, especially with COPD,” Dr. Knepler said.
If sticky summer air makes it tough for you to breathe easily, it can help to be in a place with air conditioning for a while. If you don’t have air conditioning in your home, a dehumidifier can help reduce the humidity.
If you need to go outside, try to shift your activities to mornings and evenings when it’s not so hot. And avoid strenuous outdoor activities if possible—move your workout indoors and tackle yard work when it’s cooler.
Remember to take your controller medications regularly and have your quick-relief medications available in case you need them.
The trigger: Air pollution
High temperatures can make ozone form more quickly, especially in urban areas. Ozone is an air pollutant—it’s one of the main components of smog. When ozone levels are high your breathing problems can flare if you have a lung condition.
You can often check the air quality index for your location with a weather app. If air quality is low, avoid outdoor exercise or stay indoors altogether.
If you need to go outdoors, breathing through your nose instead of your mouth can help filter out some of the pollutants. And if you choose to exercise outdoors, move your workout to the morning, which is when air pollution levels tend to be lower. An N95 mask can help block air pollutants. But if you have severe COPD you may have trouble breathing through a mask. Remove it if you get a headache, feel dizzy or struggle to breathe.
Always take your controller medications as prescribed and keep your quick-relief medications on hand. Air pollution can be high when temperatures are very high or very low, so you could have two different factors influencing your ability to breathe.
The trigger: Seasonal allergens
The spores, molds and pollens that come with seasonal changes can trigger asthma symptoms in a lot of people. Even people with other lung diseases may find that allergies make things worse. “Different people are allergic to different things, so their symptoms will be worse depending on what’s blooming,” Dr. Knepler said. “Some people literally have asthma for two months out of the year, because that’s when allergens are affecting them.”
An allergist can help you figure out what you’re allergic to, so you can take medication if needed and you can take steps to reduce your exposure to whatever makes your symptoms flare. “Allergies can be quite individualized, but they can be treated effectively, and an allergist or pulmonologist can help you sort things out,” Dr. Knepler said.
And once you’ve identified your seasonal allergies you can prepare for them ahead of time. “If you know you’re going to feel bad in March and April, see your doctor before then to nip it in the bud,” Dr. Knepler said. Wearing an N95 mask can also help filter allergens from the air.
Where you live can make a difference
If the weather and climate trigger your allergy symptoms, you may consider whether relocating might provide relief. Generally, places with lower ozone levels and lower pollution levels are good choices for people with lung disease, Dr. Knepler said. And if you find that cold, dry air or hot, humid air causes flare-ups, you could look for a location that’s more comfortable for you. If you’re relocating, research the local and state laws on smoking—places that restrict smoking in public are better if you have lung disease.
Allergens can be tricky to avoid, though. You might move to a new area where the pollution is low and the temperature is mild, only to find you’re allergic to trees or grasses you hadn’t been exposed to before.
No matter where you live, Dr. Knepler said you should protect yourself from diseases that can affect your lungs—get a flu shot every year, stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines and be immunized against pneumonia if it’s recommended for you.
The bottom line
If you have a lung condition, the weather and climate can make your symptoms worse. You might not be able to relocate but knowing your triggers and having a plan to manage them can keep you breathing easily. If you would like to connect with an allergist or pulmonologist who can help you improve your lung health, reach out to Banner Health.