Weather Changes and People with Lung Conditions. What You Need To Know to Breathe Better.
Last week we had frigid temperatures in Virginia. Our wind chill was reaching temperatures less than zero degrees Fahrenheit. I was asked by one of my patients to write a blog post about weather change and why lung patients are affected by the changes in our atmosphere. I have had my own opinions but I was up to the task of figuring out the science as to why my lung patients were the ultimate weather predictors and even more… what they could do to breathe more comfortably when a change in weather is occurring.
I have to say I love to “geek out” and find out the true science behind things. It is nice to learn why things work the way they do and the lungs (as you all know) are my passion so of course I had to find out a possible cause of shortness of breath due to weather change. To give those of you a little lesson, I first need to talk about air pressure. Air pressure flows from a high pressure system to a low pressure system. In your body, as your diaphragm pulls down it creates a lower pressure inside your lungs than what is in the atmosphere… therefore air rushes in and you are able to inhale. Next I need to tell you about Dalton’s law of partial pressure (for those of you nonscience-lovers, I’m almost done). Well this guy Dalton stated that the total pressure of a mixture of gas (for example the air we breathe) is the sum of the partial pressure of its components. (As we know, air is nitrogen, oxygen, and a small amount of other gasses) So why is what Dalton said important?…. Well when we have a barometric pressure change that causes the barometric pressure to go down, the partial pressure of oxygen should proportionally go down. This means that there is less oxygen in the air that we breathe. This is similar to when you are visiting places of high altitudes… thinner air = less oxygen. When we have a weather system that drops barometric pressure in the air we breathe not only is the pressure gradient less, but there is less oxygen in the air. Now for you naysayers… Is the amount of oxygen substantially less… well no, BUT sensitive chronically ill lungs feel this change and not only that, many of my patients will state that “they can’t take in as deep of a breath” as they usually can.
Some other thoughts that may play a part in making breathing difficult when you have a lung condition (although not scientifically proven but just make sense):
Your lungs are the only major organ in your body directly exposed to atmosphere. If you think about it… your brain is enclosed in the skull, your heart is enclosed in your chest, but your lungs have a direct pathway (your trachea / windpipe) that gives those bad boys direct exposure to the temperature, humidity, and allergens in the air we breathe. (Doesn’t seem fair for those lungs does it?) With this knowledge, I have to believe that if the air is severely cold or extremely hot… our poor lungs just don’t like it. If there are allergens in the air that our lungs can react to… they are going to react like my sweet 4 year old daughter Caroline does when her big brothers tease her…. Those lungs are going to lash out and shut down. It’s the “temper tantrum” no one wants to experience…. It’s shortness of breath. Humidity is essentially moisture (water in gaseous form) in the air which just gets in the way by taking up space not allowing the air to be fully saturated with its normal percentage of gasses and well… I liken it to a houseguest that overstays their welcome… it just has to go.
So what can you do when there is weather change to breathe more comfortably?
Plan ahead – Make sure you stay up to speed on what is going on with the weather in your area. If you have a lot to get accomplished that week, plan to get things done if possible before weather fronts arrive.
When the temperature is cold:
- Use a light weight scarf and hold it close to your nose and mouth. When you breathe out you will warm and moisten the scarf so that when you breathe in the air won’t feel so cold to your lungs. (Be aware not to use a fuzzy “linty” scarf. You don’t want to be inhaling fibers into your lungs)
- Use pursed-lip breathing while exerting yourself in cold temperatures. Breathing in through your nose will allow your nasopharyngeal passageway (nose and its passages that follow) to warm and humidify cold dry air.
- Utilize your “rescue” or “fast acting” inhalers to help you breathe at your best. Make sure you have them easily accessible if you need to use them. Stay on top of using your maintenance medications to avoid flare-ups and/or reduce inflammation.
Park your car in the garage if you are able to. This will help you avoid expending energy scraping ice off of your windshield and will limit your exposure to the frigid temperature outside. Preheat your car whenever possible and if a family member or friend can do it for you… bonus!
- If using oxygen, keep your oxygen tubing inside your jacket to keep the air as warm as possible. Keep in mind if using a portable oxygen concentrator that most of them aren’t rated to be exposed to frigid temps for a prolonged period of time. They may give you an error code if the machine gets too cold. Never keep your POC in the car. Bring it inside your house to be stored at room temperature. See your operator’s manual to find out specifics on safe operating temperatures for you portable concentrator.
- Avoid carrying items when you are outside in cold temperatures. It is hard to carry anything when you have a lung condition. Compounding those efforts to carry anything and breathe comfortably with cold temperatures can be exponentially difficult. Whenever possible have someone assist in carrying or transporting items for you. This may mean that in some cases you need someone to carry you oxygen cylinder or concentrator while you walk from point “A” to point “B.”
When the temperature is hot
- Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Many of my patients dislike the taste of water. If that’s the case try favoring the water you are drinking with citrus or berries or cucumber. Try to avoid caffeine and alcohol.
- Have your “rescue” or “fast acting” inhaler handy. You may feel on very hot and humid days that using it before going outside helps you to breathe more comfortably. In extreme heat the entire body is stressed so if you think about it, your body will react the same way it does when you get stressed out. Stay calm and use breathing techniques to recover.
- Reduce your exposure as much as possible. Try to limit your activity outside to short spurts of time and avoid over exerting yourself. Wear clothing that will keep you as cool as possible. I absolutely love the moisture wicking or dry fit clothing when I’m out at the ball field with my boys when the temperature starts heating up. It typically has great breathe-ability and keeps me cool.
High humidity can also carry increase counts of mold, spores, and other allergens. Pay attention to the weather reports and if they are suggesting that the “at risk” population should stay inside due to ozone or air quality index…heed those warnings as much as possible and don’t go outside.
Thanks for Reading! Remember: We are in this TOGETHER!
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