Doctor issues cold weather advice for respiratory disease patients

A confident female pensioner with sunglasses on a walk in town in cold weather.
If you live with respiratory conditions, the cold weather may make it more difficult to breathe. (Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Britons are firmly in the depths of winter, as temperatures dip below freezing across large swathes of the country.

The Met Office issued a warning for ice in the south of England this week, and Londoners saw snow falling across the capital on Monday 8 January as temperatures reached 0C.

The cold weather is set to continue as we plod through January, but for those with respiratory diseases, it can become a struggle to cope with wintry conditions.

Because the cold can affect how well we breathe, as well as fuel the spread of disease as more people gather in enclosed, indoor spaces, a doctor has urged patients living with respiratory problems to take action so that they are protected over the winter months.

This includes getting your flu vaccine on schedule, as well as taking advice to ease symptoms of respiratory disease and reduce the chance of worsening your condition.

Dr Sandy Connell, medical director at MAC Clinical Research, says: “As the colder weather sets in, and temperatures plummet, it’s important to consider how lung health can be impacted by the icy climate and what extra precautions should be put in place to make the winter months more manageable.

Wrapping up warm when outside in cold temperatures is extra important if you have respiratory disease. (Getty Images)
Wrapping up warm when outside in cold temperatures is extra important if you have respiratory disease. (Getty Images) (Getty Images/Image Source)

“Those living with respiratory conditions, such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF), lung cancer, and asthma, are at an increased risk from seasonal diseases, including the flu, due to their lowered immunity.”

According to the NHS, an estimated three million people in the UK have COPD. Meanwhile, the European Respiratory Journal reports that nearly 12 million Britons have had a lung disease diagnosis at some point in their lives, equivalent to around 585,000 respiratory disease diagnoses per year, with half due to asthma and COPD.

How does cold air affect respiratory diseases?

According to Dr Connell, the symptoms linked to COPD and asthma, as well as some other respiratory issues, can be exacerbated during the colder months.

The symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Wheezing

  • Chest tightness

  • Chronic cough

Dr Connell says: “The cold air is often dry which can irritate the airways of those living with respiratory problems by increasing the amount of mucus, worsening wheezing and coughing, and weakening the immune system.”

NHS tips to ease symptoms in the winter

Keep warm: Wear adequate layers of clothing when it’s cold outside, including thermals. Keep the home warm at optimum temperatures of 18C to 21C.

Keep active: Do appropriate exercise to keep blood circulating and the body warm. Consult your doctor if you have a lung condition for advice on a suitable level of exercise for you.

Plan ahead with your medication: If you take medication, you should carry it with you when you leave the house. If you have been prescribed bronchodilators, use them half an hour before leaving the house to prevent the cold weather causing a sudden tightening of the airways.

Breathe through the nose instead of the mouth: This will warm the air before it reaches the lungs. You should also wear a hood or scarf that covers the nose and mouth on very cold days.

Dr Connell adds: “According to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHAS), the flu vaccine prevented 25,000 hospitalisations in England last year, but excess winter deaths from flu were higher than those from Covid-19 in the 2022-2023 season.

“For anyone living with lung disease and respiratory issues, don’t miss your scheduled flu vaccine, consider the tips above to avoid aggravating your symptoms, and remember to reach out to your GP or respiratory healthcare teams if you have any concerns.”

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