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Why breathing problems can get worse in warm weather — and what to do about it
Heat and humidity can make it harder to breathe, especially if you have conditions such as COPD or asthma. Learn why and how to get relief.
Sunshine, beach days and barbecues: Summertime is full of fun activities. But as the weather gets warmer, it’s important to understand what that means for your lung health.
If you have a lung condition, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heat and high humidity can make them worse. According to the American Lung Association, asthma is a chronic (long-term) lung illness that makes it harder to push air in and out of your body.1 And COPD is a group of diseases that can affect your airways in a variety of ways, all of which can stop airflow and may make it harder for you to breathe.2,3
Here are some reasons why breathing problems may get worse in the summer months — and what you can do to breathe easier.
Why your breathing can get worse in warm weather
Let’s say you go for a short run on a brisk spring morning. You’ll end up breathing heavily afterward. During a run, your muscles work harder. Because of that, your body needs more oxygen, which puts your lungs to work.4
Now, let’s say you go for that same jog on a warm, summer morning. Your body will need even more oxygen.4 And you’ll breathe even heavier as your lungs work harder to bring more oxygen into your body.
But if you have a lung condition, you can be short of breath even if you don’t go out for a run. Having a lung condition such as COPD or asthma can increase your chances of heat-related breathing problems and make your symptoms even worse, says Jana Cooke, MD. She is a pulmonologist (lung specialist) at the Everett Clinic, part of Optum, in Everett, Washington.
A hot summer day with high humidity can be an asthma trigger. If you have asthma, the presence of a lot of moisture in the air can make your airways swell, making it harder to breathe. This can also cause coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.1
Most people with asthma won’t get COPD. But if your asthma goes untreated, it may increase your risk of developing COPD.5 Smoking and air pollution can raise your risk, too.2
If you have asthma or COPD, it’s important to get them checked by your doctor. They can help you manage your symptoms.
Keep an eye out for these weather conditions
Here are some common weather conditions that can affect your breathing more during the summer:
Humidity. Your lungs have tiny nerves around them called Group C nerve fibers (or C-fibers). When C-fibers become irritated, they tighten your airways. And this may cause you to:6
- Experience labored breathing (dyspnea)
- Have tightness in your airways, which can cause wheezing and coughing
When it’s really humid out, that also means there’s more moisture in the air. That can act as a trigger for breathing issues related to asthma or COPD.7
Pollen. As temperatures rise, so do the pollen counts. Pollen is a powder that grows on flowers, which the wind picks up and spreads around. Breathing in pollen can be bad for people who have COPD and asthma.7 If you have seasonal allergies and they’re left untreated, they could also make your COPD symptoms worse.7
Air pollution. When air has pollution in it, that means there are harmful particles that can easily get into your nose, mouth and lungs. Air pollution can come in different forms, such as:7
Smog (aka ozone). Gases from cars and factories make ozone, which is invisible pollution that’s harmful to breathe.8 When ozone mixes with sunlight, it creates smog. Smog also gets worse in the summer.8 That’s because heat makes the air stale and lets pollution stick around longer.9
Smoke. This often comes from wildfires, which are more likely to happen in dry, hot weather. Wildfire smoke is becoming more common on the West Coast, in states such as California, Oregon and Washington.10
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How to protect your lungs in warm weather
While there’s no cure for COPD or asthma, you can help better control your symptoms. And you can do it in warm, humid weather. Here are seven tips you can follow.
1. Stay hydrated. Making sure you’re drinking enough water in the heat and humidity is important. It helps your body cool down. And drinking enough water can help thin out the mucus (a sticky goo) in your airways and make it easier to remove. You’ll want to talk to your doctor about how much is the right amount of water to drink for you.11
2. Check the air quality. “Even when the air looks clear, it doesn’t mean it’s safe to breathe,” says Dr. Cooke. Check the air quality or pollen count in your area on a website or an app.
If you have trouble breathing, it’s a good idea to stay inside on days when the air isn’t safe. Consider staying inside when it’s too hot or humid as well.
3. Keep cool indoors. Damp, highly humid air indoors can make it hard to breathe. It can also lead to mold, which can worsen your asthma.12 If you have an air conditioner (AC) or dehumidifier, that’ll help bring the humidity level down.12
4. Clear up your home. Your home could be full of pollutants like pollen, dust mites (tiny insect-like pests that create dust) and pet dander (dead skin). Simply cleaning up your home can help clean up the air you breathe in it.13
5. Take allergy medicine. You’ll likely be spending more time outdoors because it’s summer. And if you seasonal allergies, that may mean it can be harder for you to breathe.7 Add in things in your home, like dust and animal fur (see above), and your symptoms may get worse. Antihistamines14 or a nasal spray15 may help ease both outdoor and indoor allergy symptoms.
When taking over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, always read package directions and be sure you understand all directions and precautions before taking any medication. OTC medications can have side effects, interact with other medications or affect certain medical conditions. Follow your doctor’s advice about medicine use. And ask your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions or concerns.
6. Use an inhaler. If you have asthma or COPD, you might have an inhaler you use daily.7 Inhalers allow you to breathe in medicine.16 Make sure you keep it handy in hot, humid weather, especially if you are outside. And bring your inhaler just in case. It can help open your airways faster so you can breathe better in an emergency.
7. Avoid smoking. Chemicals in cigarettes and vapes can hurt your airways and lungs.17 That can make breathing harder at any time, especially in warmer temperatures. If you smoke, make a plan to quit. Also, it’s a good idea to avoid areas where you could inhale smoke second-hand.
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When should you see your doctor?
Let’s say you try some of the solutions above. But you’re still having trouble breathing. It could be a sign of something more serious.
So, do your best to listen to your body. For example, if you use an inhaler and you need it more often in the summer, tell your doctor. You should also let them know if you use oxygen and see that the levels are low, adds Dr. Cooke.
It’s important to get checked out as soon as possible when you notice a change in your symptoms.
Bottom line: Summertime can bring more opportunities to enjoy warmer weather and outdoors. And you can do that even if you have a lung condition. By keeping a few tips and safety in mind, you can still enjoy your morning walk or lounging in the sun.
- American Lung Association. What is asthma? Last updated April 19, 2023. Accessed April 20, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COPD. Last reviewed October 7, 2022. Accessed April 20, 2023.
- American Lung Association. Learn about COPD. Last updated March 27, 2023. Accessed April 20, 2023.
- American Lung Association. Exercise and lung health. Last updated November 17, 2022. Accessed April 28, 2023.
- American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Asthma-COPD overlap. Accessed May 31, 2023.
- Physiology. Molecular/ionic basis of vagal bronchopulmonary C-fiber activation by inflammatory mediators. Published January 2020. Accessed April 28, 2023.
- American Lung Association. Prevent COPD exacerbations or flare ups. Last updated May 23, 2023. Accessed May 31, 2023.
- American Lung Association. Ozone. Last updated April 17, 2023. Accessed April 21, 2023.
- United States Environmental Protection Agency. Trends in ozone adjusted for weather conditions. Last updated June 1, 2022. Accessed April 21, 2023.
- Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine. Wildfire smoke exposure under climate change: impact on respiratory health of affected communities. Published March 2019. Accessed May 17, 2023.
- American Lung Association. Nutrition and COPD. Last updated March 27, 2023. Accessed April 28, 2023.
- American Lung Association. Mold and dampness. Accessed May 31, 2023.
- American Lung Association. Dust & indoor air quality briefing. Accessed May 31, 2023.
- National Library of Medicine. Antihistamines for allergies. Accessed May 31, 2023.
- National Library of Medicine. Azelastine nasal spray. Accessed May 31, 2023.
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Asthma treatment. Last reviewed June 2021. Accessed April 28, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health effects of cigarette smoking. Last reviewed October 29, 2021.
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