Can Cold Weather Affect COPD?

Dr. Mahler:

How severely does cold weather affect COPD? My father has COPD and is on oxygen. He lives in Northern NH. Since winter has arrived, his COPD has become significantly worse.

Lori from Worcester, MA

Dear Lori:

Exposure to cold air can cause narrowing of the breathing tubes (bronchoconstriction). This typically occurs when going from indoors to very cold air outdoors, or when exercising outdoors in the cold. I live in New Hampshire and so far the winter has not been particularly cold.

View of Presidential range in Northern New Hamphsire from Bretton Woods resort

View of Presidential range in Northern New Hamphsire from Bretton Woods resort

I suggest that your father consider other possibilities for worsening of his COPD. Do you mean that he is more short of breath? It is common for many people to be less active during the winter particularly in northern climates. How often does he get out to shop, go to appointments, visit with others, etc? Does he drive?

Less physical activity and less social interactions may contribute to depression. Could this be a factor?

It is most important that your father see his health care provider, or possibly a pulmonary physician, to help figure out his problem. He should not assume that his COPD has progressed as there are other possible explanations.

For example, does he have a history of heart disease? Breathing tests should be ordered to find out if there has been any change in his lung function. His oxygen saturation should be checked at rest with with walking to determine if his oxygen flow rate is appropriate. Some blood tests may be necessary to check for anemia, liver or kidney problems, etc.

Please share my response with your father.

Best wishes,

Donald A. Mahler, M.D.