16 Ways to Stay Healthy During Cold and Flu Season if You Have COPD (2024)

How to Prevent Colds and the Flu

There are steps you can take to stay healthy during cold and flu season.

1. Get Your Flu Shot

The CDC recommends that everyone age 6 months and older get the flu shot — especially those with risk factors like COPD. The flu can be deadly in people with COPD, and the flu shot is your best protection, according to the American Thoracic Society. Keep in mind that flu strains change from year to year, which is why it’s important to get your shot every year. In fact, getting your shot consistently boosts protection. “The viruses will be a different pattern than what we expected, and those may overlap with vaccines from previous years,” says Sciurba. “By getting vaccinated every year, you might be more protected against more strains than if you just got vaccinated that year.”

2. Ask Your Family to Get the Flu Shot

The National Foundation for Infectious Disease suggests that those who spend time with people who have a high risk of flu complications should get their shots as well. This might provide a cocoon effect, decreasing the odds of exposure to the flu virus. Sciurba says it’s called herd immunity, where if a certain number of people in a community receive vaccinations, an outbreak of a virus or infectious disease is much less likely. Ask your housemates and those you regularly see, like your children or parents, to get their seasonal flu shot.

3. Get the Pneumonia Vaccine

If you haven’t already gotten it, the pneumonia shot helps people with COPD avoid potentially dangerous complications. A study examined 120 people who stayed in the hospital with COPD exacerbations, half of whom received a pneumonia shot and half of whom didn’t. In comparison to those who didn’t get a pneumonia shot ahead of their hospitalization, the vaccinated group needed shorter stays in intensive care and in hospital overall, fewer required ventilation, and they had better health outcomes.

4. Avoid Touching Your Nose or Mouth

Many people get sick after coming into contact with a cold or flu virus and then touching their face, a main entry point for the flu into a person’s body. Where possible, avoid hand contact with the face during flu season.

5. Stay Away From People With Colds and the Flu

Cold and flu viruses spread easily. Avoid people who are ill — and large crowds of people — as much as possible to increase the odds you won’t be exposed to the viruses and bacteria that can make you sick. “It’s a balance between getting in exercise and trying to stay fit while minimizing exposure to sick people. Because depression is a common problem in our patients, isolating yourself in the bedroom is not the best thing either,” says Sciurba. “But you’re more likely to catch a virus in large groups of people. Try to be wise and cautious as much as you can.”

6. Wash Your Hands Frequently and Thoroughly

Wash your hands before eating or preparing food and anytime you’ve been outside or touched door handles or subway poles. Scrub your hands all over, including between your fingers, with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds (two rounds of “Happy Birthday” in your head).

7. Prioritize Your Health

A well-balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, physical activity, and a full night’s sleep are all habits that will help keep you healthy and less vulnerable to infections.

8. Get a Personalized COPD Plan

Ask your doctor to write down exactly what you should do if you have a flare-up, also known as a COPD Action and Management Plan. Your plan can include the medications to take and symptoms that always warrant a call to the doctor or visit to the emergency room.

9. Make Sure Your Medications Are Stocked and Up-to-Date

Check your cupboards to make sure all your prescription medications, including any emergency meds for COPD, are up-to-date in case you get sick or have a flare-up. Sciurba often prescribes an antibiotic and steroid to his patients to fill and stock at home so they don’t have to haul themselves to the pharmacy if they’re feeling sick or having a COPD exacerbation. He adds that it’s important to check with your doctor before taking these medications.

10. Don’t Smoke

Stopping smoking is the best way to reduce further damage to your lungs. What’s more, smoking makes you more likely to catch respiratory illnesses, and it can make cold and flu symptoms worse. The CDC offers an app, hotline, and SMS resources for help with quitting smoking. Nicotine replacement therapy is an option for people having difficulty with this change.

Managing COPD in Cold Weather

Keep in mind that even if you manage to avoid getting sick, the colder air in fall and winter can irritate your airways and lead to more wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath.

“Our metabolism in cold weather is increased, so you have to burn more oxygen and therefore have to breathe more,” says Sciurba. “It can be irritating and result in bronchospasm. It doesn’t necessarily predispose a person to getting flu, but it can be challenging.”

The following tips can help keep COPD symptoms in check when temperatures drop.

11. Check Air Quality Forecasts

Pollution tends to be higher in winter, and it can be dangerous for people with COPD symptoms. Keep an eye on air pollution, and try to stay inside as much as possible on days when it’s elevated.

12. Avoid Wood-Burning Fires

While a fire in the fireplace might be your idea of a cozy winter evening, the smoke and fumes can aggravate your lungs, especially if you have a lung disease like COPD. Warm up under a pile of blankets instead.

13. Preempt Symptoms With Your Reliever Medication

If you have a reliever inhaler, always keep it on hand in cold weather to respond to symptoms quickly.

14. Cover Your Nose and Mouth With a Scarf When You Head Outside

Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. This helps keep the air you breathe warmer, so you’re less likely to aggravate your lungs.

15. Warm Up Your Home

Even if you thrive in cooler temperatures, now’s not the time to turn down the thermostat. Asthma and Lung UK recommends setting it to at least 64 degrees Fahrenheit and layering up on clothes.

16. Avoid Exercising Outside

Heavier breathing during outdoor activities in cold weather can make COPD symptoms worse.

What Should You Do if You Think You’re Getting Sick?

If you get sick, stick to your prescribed COPD plan, drink plenty of fluids, and rest to help your body heal. If you feel safe, and it seems your COPD is under control, it’s usually okay to see if you can improve on your own before calling your doctor. You should always ask your doctor, however, before taking any medications, including over-the-counter cold or flu medications.

If you sense that your COPD is getting worse, don’t wait until your symptoms are severe to call your healthcare provider. Your doctor can offer medications to ease your symptoms, such as increased bronchodilator therapy, antibiotics, or oral steroid medication, to reduce the likelihood that you’ll need emergency care.

Symptoms that always warrant a call to your practitioner include:

  • Fever, especially if you have cold or flu symptoms
  • Shortness of breath that’s worse than usual or happens more often (you need more frequent treatments or can’t walk as far as usual, for example)
  • Increased coughing or wheezing
  • Changes in mucus color (including blood), thickness, amount, or odor
  • Extreme fatigue, headaches, dizziness, confusion, or irritability
  • Unexplained weight loss or sudden weight gain

The Takeaway

Flu season can be a risky time for people with COPD. But vaccinations, good hygiene, and steps to prevent exposure will reduce your risk of getting sick or experiencing COPD exacerbations.

Keep medications stocked up, monitor indoor and outdoor pollution, and stay warm to prevent the worst of COPD during winter. Speak to a doctor if you suspect you may be getting sick.

16 Ways to Stay Healthy During Cold and Flu Season if You Have COPD (2024)

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