Don’t Let the Heat Get You Down. 7 Summer Tips for People with Lung Conditions.
Summer is a time when most people want to be able to enjoy the outdoors with family and friends by attending barbecues and outdoor parties, but how can people with lung conditions do this when they struggle with heat and humidity? It’s no secret that extreme weather conditions cause people with lung diagnoses to have a more difficult time breathing comfortably and can cause flare-ups to happen. Why? Well, for starters when the temperature rises outside it causes our bodies to use energy to cool itself. People with lung conditions use more energy to breathe so when you add extra energy expenditure to cool the body, energy stores get tapped out and your ability to breathe comfortably gets more and more difficult. Also, the air quality during the heat of the summer is typically at its worst throughout the year. (Although some may argue that the cold winter months are equally as bad due to smoke from chimneys and carbon emissions.) In layman’s terms, the heat and the sunlight essentially cook the air and the chemical compounds hanging out within it combining with nitrogen oxide creating increased ozone. Ozone gases cause the lungs to bronchospasm (airways narrow) which induces coughing, wheezing, and/or a feeling as if your chest is tight. Wonderful right?! Well, I believe that there are ways for you to still enjoy the summer months all the while making a few adjustments to how you approach the heat and humidity.
Here are my Summer Heat and Humidity Recommendations for People with Lung Conditions:
1. Use Your A/C – No brainer right?! I had to mention this because many people with lung conditions are on fixed incomes and many of them have had to go on disability early in life so finances can be an issue. However, during the high heat of the summer, I encourage everyone to use their air conditioning and try to “pinch pennies” in other areas. Air conditioning not only cools your home but it reduces humidity by removing moisture from the air. Yes, it can definitely cause your power bill to increase but the benefit in using it could possibly prevent a hospitalization or costly doctor’s visits to treat a flare-up. Make sure you are changing your filters regularly and getting routine maintenance so the air conditioner can function at an optimal level and hopefully deter any mechanical failures from happening. Keep your windows closed and draw your curtains and/or close your blinds to help prevent the sun from heating up the inside of your home. If you don’t have air conditioning in your home, you may want to consider taking a trip to the library, mall, or museum to cool down during the hottest part of the day.
2. Hydrate to Avoid Dehydration – It is very rare for me to meet someone who can’t improve on their hydration. One way your body cools itself is by producing sweat. Drinking plenty of hydrating fluids will help to assist your body in cooling down. During the summer months it is recommended that you increase the amount of fluids that you drink due to this “cooling process.” Drinking water will also help you to mobilize mucus that you may have in your lungs. A good rule of thumb is that if you feel thirsty, your body is already dehydrated and needs plenty of fluids to replenish what is being lost. I also recommend that you carry a thermos or cup of water (you all know I like my fancy cups! LOL!) with you at all times to encourage yourself to keep drinking and stay hydrated throughout the day. If you are on a fluid restriction, talk to your doctor about whether or not you need to make an adjustment to your fluid intake during high heat and humidity days. Consuming sport drinks may help to replenish electrolytes however they can be high in sugar and sodium. Find out from your physician if these types of drinks are appropriate for you to consume.
3. Take Your Breathing Medications Regularly – Summer is not a time to discontinue (or forget) to take those all-important breathing medications. Take your controllers as ordered. Remember that if you plan to go out into the heat or to exert yourself to take your rescue inhaler before you leave or start the activity. You will get the benefit from it while you are out and hopefully avoid the breathlessness from catching up with you so quickly. Taking your rescue inhaler before you anticipate breathlessness may not only help you get a more quality treatment but can reduce recovery times as well. You all have heard me say this before but I like to change the term rescue inhaler to prepare inhaler. It doesn’t have the same “ring to it” per se but you will figure out quickly that it is nice to have it onboard when you go out into the heat. (However, bring it with you in case you need to use it while you are out as well!) If you are supposed to wear oxygen, don’t leave home without wearing it! You are doing yourself a disservice trying to struggle through instead of wearing your oxygen as prescribed. You could be doing irreversible damage to your heart and you could find yourself in a shortness of breath “crisis” if you were to not have it on as prescribed.
4. Watch or Read the Weather Forecast – Meteorologists don’t always get it right but they typically get close and when they warn the public that people who are “high risk” should stay indoors… that’s YOU! You are high risk because your lungs are compromised or damaged due to your lung condition and exposure to potentially dangerous atmospheric conditions can be life threatening! (Not trying to scare you… just being honest) What I recommend is to look at the forecast and try to plan your day or week accordingly. If it looks like you may get triple digit temps, high ozone levels, or a raging summer storm system, try and get what you need to get done completed before the weather arrives (or after it leaves). Make an effort to schedule appointments or perform chores like watering your plants earlier on in the day to avoid the hottest part of the day (between 11-3).
5. Prepare for the Outdoors – If you have to spend time outside in the heat, dress in cool clothing to avoid overheating. The body will expend a lot of energy to cool itself down and you don’t want to make things more difficult by over dressing. Fortunately for us, the textile industry has developed materials that “breathe” well and help to keep you cool. Make sure you wear light color clothing and a hat to protect your skin from sun exposure. Keep in mind that there are a few medications that may make you more susceptible to a sun burn so check with your pharmacist to find out if you medications may cause you to burn easily. Pre-cool your car or park it in the shade. If outside, stay in the shade as much as possible and find a seat to sit on while you are hanging out outside. Take breaks occasionally from the outdoors (if possible) and allow yourself to cool down in the air conditioning.
6. Choose to Exercise Indoors – Regular exercise is so important for people with lung conditions in order to maintain their strength and endurance. However, we must make sure that the conditions in which people with lung diagnoses exercise are optimal. Exercising indoors will allow you to exert yourself in a temperature controlled environment with low humidity. We try to keep the temperature in our pulmonary rehab 68 degrees all year long. It can be a little on the chilly side for some of my patients but it is an optimal breathing temperature for lung patients and we have found that they perform their best in a cool dry climate. During the summer don’t add an extra level of difficulty to your exercise routine by trying to combat heat and humidity during your workouts. If you aren’t a member of a gym or pulmonary rehab program, you can get your exercise indoors by walking around an indoor mall or large department store. Use a cart to place your portable oxygen in and lean on the cart as you walk to exercise your legs and support your upper body. I love indoor malls because typically there is no shortage of benches to stop a rest or to recover from breathlessness. Swimming and water aerobics is another option to help you stay cool in the summer all the while getting vital exercise. Choose times that are earlier on in the day so that you can return home before the day really heats up. Bring plenty of water with you to your workouts so that you don’t risk dehydration.
7. Know the Warning Signs of a Flare-up – Even after we try and do everything right…flare-ups or exacerbations in lung conditions can just happen. Don’t be hard on yourself but do seek medical attention right away. If you wait an extended time to see your doctor, it will often take you longer to recover. Know the signs of heat exhaustion (i.e. Nausea, headache, fainting, rapid pulse, labored breathing, dry flushed skin, and agitation) and dehydration and if you suspect any of these, don’t be ashamed to speak up and insist you get water, shade and/or some time in the air conditioning to cool down. Always have a list of emergency numbers and current medications that you are taking in an easy to access place like a wallet or purse in case you may need them.
Have a wonderful summer and thanks for reading!
Remember: We are in this TOGETHER!
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