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Living with respiratory conditions in cold weather

Winter is often a magical time of year. For many, the festive period and New Year is a time for celebrating and spending time with family and friends.  For many, however, winter time can also often be a source of concern and worry.  People with respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or severe asthma, can be particularly susceptible to the effects of cold weather, finding themselves shorter of breath and coughing more than usual.

Every winter, GP surgeries and hospitals see an increase in visits from people with respiratory conditions. If you have a lung disease, below are some tips about how you can fight the impact of the cold, and keep your lungs as healthy as possible throughout the winter months.

Keep warm

Firstly, it is important to keep warm by wearing layers of clothing when it’s cold. This may sound obvious, but is something people too often forget or don’t plan for. For example, when going on short trips such as to the local shop, people can underestimate how quickly the cold can affect them, and can leave the house without suitable clothing.

Items like thermal underwear can be very useful, as can woollen tights and socks. If you need to leave the house, check the weather forecast for the rest of the day to minimise your chances of getting caught in sudden downpours or strong, icy winds.

Keeping the home warm is also crucial. The optimum room temperature is around 21 degrees in the living room, around 18 in the bedroom. It is better to make sure the bedroom is nice and warm before going to bed to ensure you stay comfortable throughout the night.

During really cold weather, people should also wear warmer night clothes. This is again something too many people don’t do, forgetting that their body temperature drops as they sleep.

Keep active

Staying active and doing some exercise can also be extremely helpful, by keeping the blood circulating and the body warm.

Appropriate exercise is generally good for strengthening lung health at any time of year – if you have a lung condition, your doctor will be able to advise you of a suitable level of exercise for you, and local places where you can do this if you can’t do it in the home.

Plan ahead with your medication

Those on medication should carry it with them, and people who have been prescribed bronchodilators should use them half an hour before leaving the house, to prevent the cold weather causing a sudden tightening of the airways when they are out.

Breathing through the nose instead of the mouth may also be helpful as this will warm the air before it reaches the lungs. If you can, you should also wear a hood or scarf that covers the nose and mouth on particularly cold days.

There are often also outbreaks of flu in periods of cold weather, so anyone with a lung condition should contact their GP to take advantage of the free flu vaccine they are entitled to, if they haven’t already.

Could the cold be telling you something?

In some circumstances, cold weather can help people without a diagnosed lung condition identify whether they are showing some of the early warning signs. It is estimated that three million people in the UK have COPD, yet a staggering two thirds of these have not yet been diagnosed.

Anyone who notices the cold weather bringing on a cough, phlegm and shortness of breath, should consider getting it checked out by their GP.

For more advice, please call the BLF helpline on 03000 030 555, or visit the BLF website.

Dr Penny Woods

Dr Penny Woods is Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation.

Penny qualified as a doctor in 1987 and has an MA from Cambridge University and MBA from INSEAD.

She has many years’ experience in the healthcare sector working as a management consultant for clients including governments, multi-national companies, NHS organisations and private healthcare providers. She spent seven years in a number of senior roles at BTG plc, and before joining the BLF she was chief executive of the Picker Institute Europe.

Penny is passionate about working on behalf of patients, from personal and family experience of COPD, asthma, obstructive sleep apnoea and motor neurone disease.

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