The Highs and Lows of Humidity

#1 Dee

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17 July 2009 - 08:59 AM

Q. I quit smoking over 18 years ago, and yet was diagnosed with emphysema 3 years ago. Am considering moving to an area that has high humidity. Will I encounter additional difficulty breathing there? Is one climate more favorable over another?

A. Your description of smoking cessation 18 years ago and a diagnosis of emphysema 3 years ago is not uncommon. In some people, lung damage continues even after smoke exposure stops. It was important to quit smoking because these changes would have happened more rapidly.

There is no known ideal climate for people with COPD. Both very humid air and very dry air can affect breathing. There is no way to predict how a person will do in another environment. If you have spent time there, and your COPD was controlled, that may be a good indication. When the humidity is very high, it may be advisable to stay indoors in air conditioning if you have more symptoms. If you have more difficulties in your new environment, a lung specialist may help optimize your medication regimen.

Did you know that high humidity can cause more than just a bad hair day? For some it can mean a flare-up of COPD. Humid air actually weighs more than drier air. It requires more effort to move the humid air in and out of your lungs. You actually do work harder during these days. Many people with COPD find that high levels of humidity can trigger symptoms. Humid environments tend to have very high airborne levels of molds and fungi and a higher presence of dust mites. Additionally, moist air is much heavier than dry air, making it harder to move. If you are sensitive to high humidity, stay indoors when the weather is very humid. In the Midwest, we usually have some weeks when it is impossible to completely avoid humidity and ozone problems. You can keep indoor humidity levels low with a dehumidifier or air conditioner. Make sure to clean both regularly so they don’t become a source of pollutants themselves. Fix all leaks and drips in your home as quickly as possible. Standing water and high humidity encourages the growth of mold and other biological pollutants that can trigger your COPD as well.

By Krisha McCoy. Weather changes are one of many factors that can trigger your COPD symptoms. Symptoms of COPD, which include shortness of breath, cough, and phlegm production, tend to get worse for some COPD patients when the air is very cold and when it is hot and humid. "Weather extremes are not good," says Barry Make, MD, co-director of the COPD program at National Jewish Health and professor of medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver. Dr. Make says that he has noticed that temperatures below freezing or above 90 degrees Fahrenheit tend to cause COPD symptoms to flare up.

Dealing With Hot, Humid Air
While there are a few people whose COPD symptoms improve in humid weather, most people's symptoms flare up on days of high heat, humidity, or smog. This can especially be an issue when a front moves in, bringing humidity, says Make. "A lot of people with COPD tell you that they know when a front is going to come through," he says. So on the hottest and most humid days of the year, stay indoors in an air-conditioned environment to prevent a flare-up of your symptoms. "If it is a high-pollution day, we suggest [that our COPD patients] stay inside and limit their activities," notes Make. "If it is really hot or really cold, we would say the same."

Should You Move?
Seasonal exacerbations of COPD symptoms can be so bad that people will move across the country in an effort to deal with the problem. "One of the most common questions we get [from COPD patients] is what part of the country [is best] to live in because of the weather." In the past, physicians commonly recommended moving to the western United States, where the air is less humid. But he says that it is now known that the COPD-weather connection is very individualized, and that what works for one person might not work for the next. "It is variable from person to person," says Make. "Some people prefer more humidity and some less."

It is usually not necessary to move when you have COPD, but if you live in a climate with extreme weather changes and moving is an option for you, talk with your doctor. Make strongly recommends a trial run before you relocate. "If people are going to think about moving somewhere for the weather," he says, "be there for all of the seasons of the year." That way you will know if the move will provide year-round improvement of your symptoms.

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