There are an estimated two million people in the UK with COPD and a whopping 5.4 million with asthma, and the heat that comes with summer can cause symptoms to flare up. In light of this, leading UK-based charity Asthma + Lung UK spoke with Express.co.uk about the things individuals can do to pre-empt their breathing trouble and even prevent it. Beyond the usual advice such as using a fan to let cool air blow towards you and keeping out of the sun when it is at its highest in summer, the charity explains that eating certain vegetables and using musical instruments can also help ease pressure on the lungs.
Symptoms could flare up in certain types of hot weather because individuals are too hot and dehydrated.
Specific symptoms that may flare up during these times include:
- Increasing breathlessness, particularly when you’re active
- A persistent chesty cough with phlegm – some people may dismiss this as just a “smoker’s cough”
- Frequent chest infections
- Persistent wheezing
- A sore throat
- A headache
- A runny or blocked nose
- Aches and pains
Summer is typically associated with hay fever, but pollen can be a trigger for people with asthma (59 percent) and cause flare-ups for those with COPD (27 percent), according to research from Asthma + Lung UK. For this reason, tip number one for summer is for individuals to plan ahead of pollen season.
Tip 1: Plan for pollen
If you know that you get hay fever and take antihistamines, it is advised that you start taking them up to four weeks before you normally get symptoms. By doing this, by the time that pollen starts being released, the medication has already built up in your bloodstream so you may be less affected by the allergen.
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If you use a steroid nasal spray, it can take two weeks to start working, so plan ahead by using a pollen calendar and check the pollen count daily.
Pollen levels are highest in the early morning and early evening, so for individuals who get hay fever, also try to avoid opening windows at these times and try using a fan instead.
Dr Andy Whittamore, Clinical Lead at Asthma & Lung UK, advises: “When pollen levels are high, people with lung conditions like asthma can suffer serious symptoms and have life-threatening attacks.
“Using preventer inhalers as prescribed is important as the medicine reduces sensitivity and swelling in the airways, helping to prevent symptoms such as wheezing and coughing before they even start.”
Tip 2: Watch the weather
Whilst it’s well-known that cold air can be difficult for people with lung conditions, hot weather can also trigger asthma attacks and flare-ups in people with COPD and other lung conditions. That’s why it’s important to check the weather forecast, and to take extra care before going on holiday somewhere really hot or where the air quality is particularly poor.
When it’s boiling, be sure to take your time, and don’t go out during the hottest time of the day. Also, always have any essentials with you – a bottle of water and any medication you might need. Being active is important, but be careful not to overheat, especially if you have a lung condition.
Fumes, pollen and excessive temperatures in particular can be tough on the lungs, so be sensible about how and when you partake in exercise. During a very hot spell, individuals may want to think about reducing or avoiding strenuous activity until it’s cooler.
Tip 3: Snack on carrots and banish the beer
Although one that many might not want to hear, a well-balanced diet that is rich in vitamin D, which is found in oily fish, red meat, eggs and some cereals, protects the body from infection and helps boost the lungs. In particular, root vegetables such as beetroot, carrots and turnips are good for everyone – but if you have a lung condition, eating well is more important than ever. But it’s important to sort the facts from fiction.
Many worry that if you drink milk or eat cheese or yoghurt, you’ll produce more mucus. However, there’s not enough scientific evidence to support this concern. So you should include dairy foods in your diet unless you’ve been diagnosed with an allergy. Saying this, some food and drink can aggravate lung conditions.
Anything that contains sulphites should be limited – and this includes beer, wine, cider, processed meat, all foods we typically enjoy once the weather gets warmer. And if you love eating outside, be sure to keep your distance from the barbecue as smoke can trigger asthma or exacerbate a lung condition. You may also want to avoid anything that contains high levels of histamines too, like yoghurt, mature cheese, and smoked meats. According to Dr Whittamore, one of the best things you can do for your lungs is to keep your weight under control.
He says: “For both adults and children asthma is harder to control if you’re overweight or obese. You’re more likely to have asthma symptoms and asthma attacks. And if you do have an attack, it could be more severe.”
Tip 4: Fly high
If you’re going abroad this summer, it’s important to get organised, and if you have a lung condition, make sure you check with your GP or specialist that you’re fit to travel before booking that flight. Carry with you copies of medical letters and a list of medications you are taking just in case you need emergency support while you’re away.
If you or someone you are travelling with does struggle with breathlessness make sure you book accommodation that is easily accessible without too many steps involved. And whatever you do, don’t overdose on the sun, especially if you’re not used to it. Sun stroke can cause breathlessness, and in extreme cases, can even damage the lungs.
Tip 5: Make music
It may be one of the more surprising tips but for years, the harmonica has been used by people with COPD in the US to ease pressure on their lungs. It is believed that playing the instrument opens the lungs by using a breathing strategy called the pursed-lip technique which involves slowly breathing in and out through the nose whilst keeping the lips pursed. Although the research into the beneficial impact harmonica playing can have on people with the condition is still in its infancy, there does seem to be a definite link.
“Activities like singing, playing a wind instrument and some forms of exercise, that encourage people to breathe from the stomach is going to be good for your respiratory health all year round as you are using all of your lungs to breathe,” says Dr Whittamore.
Tip 6: Pump it up
If you have asthma, it is essential that you take your preventer inhaler regularly, as prescribed by your specialist or GP. If you do this, then you are far less likely to need your reliever inhaler (usually blue).
Providing his expert advice, Dr Whittamore says: “In asthma, preventer medicines help to dampen down the inflammation in the airways and make it less likely that triggers will cause symptoms and asthma attacks, but they must be taken regularly as prescribed.
“Get your inhaler technique checked regularly (GP, asthma nurse, pharmacist, website) so that you are getting as much of the medicines into the right part of your lungs. Even a slight improvement can increase the effectiveness of the inhaler and reduce the chance of side effects.
“Also, always carry your reliever inhaler with you, no matter where you are in the world – it can be hard to predict when different triggers (activity, emotion, stress, pollution, allergies) might catch you out and cause lung symptoms.”
Asthma + Lung UK is the only charity in the UK fighting for everyone with a lung condition, aiming for a world where everyone can breathe with healthy lungs. It provides advice and support for the 12 million people who will get a lung condition during their lifetime. For advice, call the charity helpline on 0300 222 5800.