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How This Year's Hot Summer Air Can Affect Your Asthma and COPD

Record summer temperatures are now routine for many Americans. However, if you have asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), it’s important to take extra precautions during extremely warm weather, as heat can aggravate your symptoms.

This doesn’t mean that your asthma or COPD should prevent you from enjoying summer activities such as outdoor exercise and travel. Understanding what to watch out for is key to reducing risk and enjoying summer in the best possible health. It also helps to consult with your own physician, who can give you more personalized guidance to improve your quality of life.

“Just think of doctors and medical teams as your allies,” said pulmonologist J. Tod Olin, MD.


Summer Conditions and Asthma Triggers

Heat and humidity, along with sudden weather changes, can bring about asthma symptoms. In fact, research indicates (Opens in a new window) (Opens in a new window) that extreme heat events during the summer months can put people with asthma at increased risk for hospitalization.

Dramatic shifts in temperature also can be experienced as a result of summer travel. According to Dr. Olin, going to a different climate, especially one where the air is dryer, can have a negative impact on asthma symptoms.  

“One of the major things the airway does not like is dryness, which sometimes comes with heat,” stressed Dr. Olin. “For many clinical patients, their airways don't like the transition from moist to dry. So when they fly from Miami to Denver, for example, their airways tend to be unhappy with that decision.”

People also tend to be more active during the summer. However, rapidly breathing in dry air during exercise can cause asthma symptoms. This phenomenon is known as exercise-induced asthma (EIA). According to Dr. Olin, as you exercise “the higher quantity of airflow tends to dry out the airways. When the airways and the fluid lining the airways dry out, different molecules will signal different cells and the muscles in the airway will squeeze down.” This makes breathing difficult.

Dr. Olin emphasizes that exercise itself isn’t as responsible for EIA as the amount and quality of the air being inhaled. This is why it’s important to be mindful of outdoor conditions and air pollution, which can fluctuate radically during the summer.


How Does Heat Affect People with COPD?

For people with COPD, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, summer heat can be especially challenging.

Doctors are still researching the effects of heat on COPD. Pulmonologist Barry Make, MD, explains that heat can affect the lining level of the airways. Hot air can inflame your upper and lower airways, which can aggravate symptoms.

Additionally, the general feelings of weariness associated with exposure to high temperatures can take a toll on people with COPD. “With heat, you’re fatigued, you’re tired. And with COPD, you also don’t have much stamina to begin with,” Dr. Make said. “That can affect your performance and what you’re able to do and how comfortable you feel.”

So, if you or a loved one have COPD, it might be a good idea to plan out exposure to outdoor air and heat to reduce risk.


Summer and Airborne Pollutants

Wildfires and ozone conditions can make a summer breeze a host of hazards for people with asthma and COPD. As the air gets hotter and dryer, people are more at risk for inhaling pollutants, which can aggravate asthma and COPD.

“Pollution does the same thing as heat,” said Dr. Make. “It affects the lining layer of the lungs and lung cells. It irritates the lungs and airways. And so the combination of heat and pollution together can make things doubly worse.”
Limiting exposure to pollutants is crucial during the summer months. The Air Quality Index is a useful tool here, as it provides daily scores for outdoor conditions. “It's pretty easy to understand,” said Dr. Olin. “If you have asthma and the levels are over 100, I would think twice about exercising outside because you're much more likely to trigger symptoms.”

For more information about summer air quality and wildfires, check out our expanded discussion here.


Tips on Minimizing Risk

If you have asthma, monitoring how different conditions and activities affect your symptoms will help you successfully manage your condition. During the summer, this sometimes means tracking air quality, along with heat and humidity levels, to determine what is consistently triggering your symptoms. As always, carry your rescue inhaler and follow your asthma action plan.

When it comes to dealing with COPD and summer heat, Dr. Make recommends that people refrain from exercise and strenuous activity outdoors, while taking care of their general health. “Make sure you drink enough, and don’t get dehydrated. Often, especially when people are older, their ability to sense thirst is impaired and they don’t know they are thirsty. So make sure you drink enough and don’t get dehydrated.” Additionally, he says on days when it’s especially hot, it might be better to avoid exercise and being outdoors altogether.  


Final Thoughts

Having asthma or COPD means that you need to pay more attention to factors like weather and air quality. However, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t enjoy the outdoors. Remember, though, to be vigilant about taking your medication if you’re experiencing breathing issues and call your doctor if you’re having persistent symptoms or issues with medication. You can also learn more about asthma and COPD to equip yourself with more tools for self-care.