Healthy Living in the North

Tales from the Man Cave: Lung disease can suck the life out of you

Image of oxygen tank in front of a snowy background

Winter’s cold temperatures can make living with lung disease even harder. Jim knows the feeling and shares 13 tips to prevent exacerbations and improve lung health this winter.

People with chronic obstructive lung disease and asthma tend to have more episodes of worsening during winter months. So, with periods of deep freezing common during this time of year in northern B.C., it was suggested that I write about winter lung health. Having been diagnosed with emphysema for the last 20 years, it is a subject in which I am well versed!

The truth of the matter is this: when you can’t breathe properly, nothing else matters and a winter worsening of symptoms can see a person go from mild discomfort to all out panic and depression. For everybody who knows what that feels like, you know that it is an experience that can’t be put into words. This is why it is so important to ask: As winter kicks into high gear, what can those of us with lung disease do to try and avoid those exacerbations?

Here’s my short list of tips for winter lung health:

  1. We know that smoking is the worst thing that a person with chronic lung disease or asthma can do. I should not really have to say that but there are folks who have terrible difficulties quitting. To them, my advice is this: don’t feel guilty, just stop again and again and again. The carbon monoxide from cigarettes is robbing you of precious oxygen. I feel your pain, but stop and keep stopping if you have to. Look for supports to help you stop smoking, like nicotine replacement therapy. Visit quitnow.ca for great resources too.
  2. Watch your symptoms. If you’re asthmatic, you need to keep an eye on your peak flow meter. Make sure that you are taking any long-acting medication as prescribed and discussed with your doctor. Even if you are feeling OK, carry a rescue puffer with you.
  3. Air quality. Sometimes this is poorer in the winter so get into the habit of watching your local weather channel air quality report or visit bcairquality.ca, especially if you are carrying out any outdoor activity.
  4. Look out for those little increases in breathing difficulty during normal effort or slight exertion.
  5. Watch for an increase in cough or sputum. If it does not improve, see your doctor as soon as possible.
  6. Keep a thermometre in the house so that you can check if you are getting a fever.
  7. If you have chronic bronchitis, you will no doubt have an antibiotic on hand just in case of an attack. Don’t be afraid to use it and make an appointment with your doctor as soon as you do. If the intensity of the attack is unusual or feels really bad, don’t be afraid to go to your local emergency department. Better safe than sorry!
  8. If you have home oxygen, you should use it as prescribed by your doctor, especially during increased activity. By using your home oxygen, you are using less effort to get that necessary oxygen and important rest. Don’t smoke with your home oxygen tank on – it can catch on fire and there are several cases of this happening every year throughout the province.
  9. During winter months, some folks with COPD and asthma have a reaction to the cold. There are proprietary masks out there if you want to look for them but you should use at least a scarf to cover your mouth and nose when out in the cold if you can tolerate that.
  10. You can’t always avoid perfumes or smoke or other noxious smells that can trigger an attack but if you sense those around you, get out of that environment as quickly as you can.
  11. Keep as active as you can. One thing to watch is the buildup of body temperature when engaged in activities such as exercise or walking outside. It can creep up on you and really make you breathless all of a sudden, especially if you’re wrapped up against the cold. Find your tolerance and carry out those tasks in smaller bites to suit the disease you have.
  12. Eat a diet that’s full of nutritious food. Depending on how progressed your lung disease is, if eating makes you feel uncomfortable, you might have to have smaller, more frequent nutritious meals. If you are losing weight you should consult a doctor and dietitian.
  13. Learn to breathe. I know it’s something we do naturally and that we have no choice in the matter but with lung disease, we can start to develop a habit of breathing in a shallow fashion. For this, there is good advice all over the web (like at HealthLinkBC) but one way that can be doubly beneficial is to practice a relaxation-based technique such as yoga or meditation breathing. Learning to control your breathing might help to stop a panic in its tracks, even during a worsening of symptoms.

Winter can be a tough time for people with lung disease but we can still live a full life and, with the right preparations and precautions, even learn to push the envelope a little. I wish you well this winter.

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Jim Coyle

About Jim Coyle

Jim is a tobacco reduction coordinator with the men’s health program, and has a background in psychiatry and care of the elderly. In former times, Jim was director of care at Simon Fraser Lodge and clinical coordinator at the Brain Injury Group. He came to Canada from Glasgow, Scotland 20 years ago and, when not at work, Jim plays in the band Out of Alba and spends time with his family.

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