Summer With COPD: How to Avoid Complications

Beating the heat when you have COPD

senior man exercising
OJO Images/Getty Images

For people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, summer heat is not only uncomfortable, it can lead to dangerous complications. Extreme heat and humidity can worsen COPD symptoms, including increased shortening of breath and bronchospasms.

Here’s a closer look at the problems you can encounter with COPD in hot weather, and how to prevent serious summertime complications.

Worsening Dyspnea

One of the primary complaints of patients with COPD is dyspnea, or shortness of breath.

When the temperature heats up, your level of dyspnea can sometimes be far greater than normal. Why is this?

Extreme temperatures often result in stress to the entire body. If we think about how our bodies react to stress, we may be able to better understand the phenomenon of how temperature affects breathing.

The body is always working to try to maintain a normal body temperature, which is about 98.6 degrees F. When we are exposed to extreme weather conditions, such as during the heat of summer, the body must expend extra energy to try to cool itself down in order to maintain a normal body temperature.

This extra energy requirement causes the body to demand more oxygen. If you have COPD, you are already using much of your energy just to breathe, not to mention everything else that you do during the day. So it’s not uncommon to experience a greater level of shortness of breath when you are exposed to extreme temperatures as your body is forced to use more energy while it struggles to maintain your body temperature.


Have you ever stepped outside on a really hot day and taken a deep breath? The result is often startling. For people with COPD whose airways are already inflamed and irritated, breathing hot air can worsen this, leading to bronchospasm.

During a bronchospasm, the smooth muscle of the airways contract, which decreases the size of the airways.

This makes it more difficult to get air into or out of the lungs, which also will increase shortness of breath and make it harder to breathe.

Preventing Complications

While we cannot control the weather, we can control our environment. Here are some steps you can take to beat the heat this summer and breathe easier:

Drink Plenty of Fluids: During the hot summer months, you should increase your fluid intake regardless of your activity level or thirst.

Wear Appropriate Clothing and Sunscreen: A sunburn makes it even more difficult for your body to cool itself, so be sure to wear sunscreen every day, even if you are not planning to be in the direct sunlight. Keep cool by wearing lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting garments.

Plan Your Activities Carefully:  If you have to go outside, do so in the early morning hours or after the sun goes down. When driving, park in shady areas and place sun protectors in your car. Choose air-conditioned venues and indoor activities.

Stay Cool: If it is possible, stay indoors in an air-conditioned building.

If you don't have air conditioning, plan your day to involve going to places that do, for example, the library, a shopping mall or a friend or family member's home that is air conditioned. Take a cool shower or bath to lower your body temperature. Avoid activities that involve utilizing extra energy. Call your local health department to see if they can recommend a heat-relief shelter in your area.

Use the Buddy System: During hot summer months, make sure to have friends or family members call at least twice a day to make sure you are OK.

Avoid Excess Activity:  You will be better able to tolerate the heat if you avoid strenuous physical activity or exercise during hot days.

Take Your Medications as Directed: Remember to take your medications as directed by your doctor. If you use oxygen, talk to your doctor about your oxygen requirements during the summer months.

Pay Attention to Weather Reports: Make it a point to watch or listen to the daily weather report alerting you to current weather conditions. Plan your activities during times of more moderate weather, devoid of extreme weather advisories. Even short periods of extreme temperatures can cause serious illness and/or COPD complications


Rotech Healthcare, Inc. Breathe Easy. "Weather and Breathing". Volume 15, Issue 1. 2005.

The Centers for Disease Control. "Extreme Heat: A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety".

Continue Reading