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December 9, 2011 > Winter Can be Hard for People with COPD and Asthma

Winter Can be Hard for People with COPD and Asthma

Tips for Staying Healthy During the Cold and Flu Season

Winter can be a difficult time for people with respiratory ailments like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Cold air can often trigger asthma symptoms and staying healthy during the cold and flu season can be a challenge.

"Cold air can cause the airways to constrict, making it harder to breathe, particularly for people with asthma," said Rose Stortz, a respiratory therapist who co-coordinates the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at Washington Hospital. "People are also more likely to come in contact with germs that can make them sick during the winter months."

She said most people spend more time indoors during the winter. When people are in close contact with each other, it makes it easier for germs to spread, she explained. It's hard to avoid coming in contact with people who are sick, particularly during the holidays when a lot of people are at the malls and grocery stores.

"Often what we see with our patients is that they are around more children during the holidays, visiting with family and attending social gatherings," said respiratory therapist Sherry Harrington, who co-coordinates the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program with Stortz. "Close contact with children increases the risk of getting sick. Kids pick up a lot of germs at daycare and school."

She said most of the time when a healthy person gets a cold, they will experience about a 10 percent decline in health. But for people with COPD who are not in optimal health, a cold can turn into a respiratory infection and that 10 percent decline can cause serious problems.

Staying Healthy

People with asthma and COPD need to take good care of themselves so they can stay healthy during the winter months. Both respiratory therapists agreed that the most important step people can take to stay well is to wash their hands frequently.

"You need to wash off the germs so you don't get sick," Stortz said. "Cold and flu germs get on your hands and they can make you sick if you touch your mouth, nose, and eyes. So when you are out in public touching a number of surfaces, keep your hands away from your face."

It's also very important for people with lung diseases like asthma and COPD to get vaccinated against influenza (flu) and pneumonia, Harrington added. Both the flu and pneumonia can be life-threatening for people with respiratory problems.

People with COPD and asthma should have a written action plan that spells out their treatment regimen, according to the respiratory therapists, and take their medications as prescribed.

"If you don't have an action plan, you need to work with your physician to create one," Harrington said. "If you have one, it may need to be updated for winter."

Stortz said people with asthma should use a peak flow meter regularly, which monitors the ability to exhale, so they can see how well they are breathing. If their breathing gets worse, it may be an early warning sign they are getting sick.

"People with COPD and asthma should see their doctor as soon as they see any signs and symptoms of illness," Harrington added. "The problem is people wait until they are really sick."

During the cold winter months, it's important to dress for the weather. Stortz suggested wrapping a scarf around your face when it's cold so you don't have to breathe in the cold air. If you have a child with asthma, make sure they dress appropriately and stay warm, she added.

"You may want to stay away from crowds if possible to avoid coming in contact with people who are sick," Harrington said. "Fires may be something else you want to avoid. While a warm fire in the fireplace is nice, smoke can trigger symptoms for people with respiratory diseases."

Stortz said it's also important to protect your immune system by eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of rest, and avoiding stress.

"Basically you need to focus on your health and keep your disease under control," she added. "Pay attention to your body, follow your treatment plan, and protect yourself against illness."

Education and Support

Washington Hospital's Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program can help people with COPD and asthma learn how to better manage their disease so they can stay healthier. The program is twice a week for eight weeks and participants work one-on-one with a respiratory therapist.

The Better Breathing for Life Club offers education and support to people with all types of lung diseases as well as their caregivers and loved ones. The group meets on the fourth Wednesday of every month from 1 to 2:45 p.m. Meetings are held at the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium at 2500 Mowry Avenue
(Washington West), in Fremont.

For more information about the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program and Better Breathing for Life Club at Washington Hospital, visit

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