Protect your lungs and your health in winter: Important tips for people with respiratory disease

Frigid air, colds and flu are common winter triggers that put your lungs and your health at risk, especially for people with respiratory diseases like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, cystic fibrosis and tuberculosis (TB).

If you’re one of the over 3 million Canadians coping with a serious lung disease, there are steps you can take during the winter months to reduce the threat to your health and well-being.

Tips for outdoors

Cold, dry air and strong winds can irritate your airways and cause wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and tightness in your chest. Here are some ideas that may help:

  • Check the weather before you go out. If it’s too cold or windy, if you’re not feeling well or you’re having trouble breathing, try to stay indoors and keep warm.
  • If you have asthma or COPD, use a reliever inhaler half an hour before going outside, (if your doctor recommends it), and carry it with you.
  • Loosely wrap a soft scarf around your nose and mouth to warm and humidify the air before it enters your lungs. You could also wear a cold-weather face mask made for exercising in cold weather. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth to help warm the air before it gets to your lower airways.
  • Dress in layers to help trap warm air next to your body and wear a hat so heat doesn’t escape through your head.
  • If travelling in a vehicle, try to have someone pre-heat the vehicle before you get in.
  • Drink a glass of lukewarm water when returning indoors to reduce any burning sensation in your lungs. Although not proven, some people find this helpful after exposure to the cold.
  • Avoid exercising outdoors in severe cold weather.

Tips for indoors

  • Heat your home to at least 18C and keep your bedroom window closed at night.
  • Do not use a wood-burning fireplace or stove. The smoke and fumes can irritate your lungs.
  • Change or clean your furnace air filter to improve the air quality in your home.
  • Have hot drinks and at least one hot meal a day. Eating regularly helps keep your energy levels up during the winter.

 Tips to prevent colds and flu

If you have a chronic lung disease, your immune system is already compromised and you’re more likely to catch a cold or the flu, which can make your symptoms much worse. Here are some ways to protect yourself:

  • Get a flu shot. Immunization is your best protection. The Canadian Lung Association recommends most people over 6 months old should get the flu shot every year. Most people with COPD and asthma should also get a pneumonia shot. Ask your doctor.
  • Stay away from people who are sick and avoid crowds in peak cold and flu season.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water for 30 seconds – or the time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice – several times a day. Carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer for times you’re not near a sink.
  • Keep your home and workspace clean to fight germs. Use a regular household disinfectant to wash common surfaces daily. Antibacterial cleaners are not necessary.
  • Get plenty of rest, eat well and keep your stress levels under control. The healthier you are, the less likely you are to catch winter colds and flu, or if you do, you’ll be able to recover faster.
  • Watch for early symptoms of a cold or flu (sneezing, sore throat, aching muscles, headaches, slight fever) and speak to your doctor for advice to minimize the symptoms.

The top 5 respiratory diseases in Canada

Over 3 million Canadians cope with one of five serious respiratory diseases – asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, cystic fibrosis and tuberculosis (TB).

1. Asthma is a chronic (lifetime) inflammatory disease of the airways that causes shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing and wheezing. It varies from person to person and can be mild, moderate or severe. It can flare up from time to time and then not appear for long periods.

Airways can become swollen and filled with mucus, or small and tight, making it harder for air to pass through. The cause of asthma is not known, and currently there is no cure, but with proper treatment, people with asthma can lead normal, active lives.

2. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and is characterized by increasing breathlessness. The lungs are obstructed or blocked, making it hard to breathe. In 80%-90% of cases it is caused by smoking. COPD is a progressive disease and currently incurable, but with the right diagnosis and treatment, it can be managed. People can live for many years with COPD and enjoy life.

3. Lung Cancer: There are 2 major types of lung cancer that each grows and spreads in different ways. The most common is non-small cell lung cancer, which usually spreads more slowly. The 3 major types of non-small cell lung cancer are: squamous cell carcinoma; adenocarcinoma; and, large cell carcinoma.

Small cell lung cancer is less common and spreads faster. The 3 major types are: small cell carcinoma; mixed small cell/large cell; and, combined small cell carcinoma.

Other types of cancer can spread to the lungs, but they are not the same disease as primary lung cancer, which starts in lung cells.

4. Cystic fibrosis (CF) is the most common, fatal genetic disease affecting young Canadians and mainly affects the lungs and digestion. People with CF have an unusually thick, sticky mucus that clogs their lungs, makes it hard to breathe, and can lead to life-threatening lung infections. CF also affects the pancreas: thick secretions there stop the release of the digestive enzymes that normally help break down food, making it hard for people to digest and absorb nutrients. The mucus can also block the bile duct in the liver, which eventually causes permanent liver damage in some people.

5. Tuberculosis (TB) is a serious disease caused by breathing in a bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. TB usually infects the lungs but can also infect other parts of the body, including the kidneys, spine and brain.

Although the rate of active TB in Canada is among the lowest in the world, about 1,600 new cases are reported in Canada every year. In 2016, 89% of these cases affected 2 main populations:

  • 70% of cases occurred among foreign-born individuals
  • 19% of cases occurred among Canadian-born Indigenous Peoples

Most cases of active TB are curable through a long course of antibiotics.

SOURCES:

American Lung Association

Asthma Canada

British Lung Foundation 

Canadian Cancer Society  

Canadian Lung Association   

Cleveland Clinic

COPD Foundation 

Cystic Fibrosis News Today

Government of Canada

Lung Disease News 

Public Health Agency of Canada, Government of Canada: Life and Breath: Respiratory Disease in Canada, 2007