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Managing COPD in poor air quality

Nicholas Wysham, MD

As wildfire smoke blanketed much of Washington and Oregon this past week, it brought concerns about outdoor air pollution home to Clark County, especially for those suffering from chronic health conditions.

We all know the quality of the air we breathe is important to our health and well-being. But if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), poor air quality can increase your symptoms and be debilitating. You may be wheezing, coughing more frequently and have difficulty breathing. Tack on the heat and it may sap your energy for day-to-day activities.

Smoking remains the primary cause of COPD. While smoking is on the decline, COPD is an increasingly common chronic health condition that has become the third-leading cause of death in the United States. Allergies and asthma can worsen the shortness of breath and coughing that affect people with COPD.

Heavy pollution due to wildfires can send up some smoke signals related to your lung health. The summer months typically see fewer viruses in circulation and infectious bronchitis is less common this time of year. If you are coughing or wheezing, I would consider whether the air quality could be triggering a lung condition that you may, or may not, know about.

How can I control my symptoms?

First, reduce exposure to any environmental pollution.

  • Check air pollution reports before going outside. The Southwest Clean Air Agency is one resource for air quality data in and around Vancouver.
  • Stay indoors in an air-conditioned space. If your home or workplace is not air conditioned, visit a neighbor or a public space such as the library or a shopping mall.

Next, find ways to improve the quality of the air you’re breathing.

  • Minimize indoor pollution. Keep your home clean and dust-free. And of course, stop smoking and do not allow others to smoke in your home or near you.
  • Clean your air conditioners. This can rid them of mold and dust.
  • Use HEPA filters. HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters can lower your exposure to harmful air pollutants.
  • Focus on your bedroom air filter. You spend so many hours here. This is one space you can make into a fortress against poor air quality.

If you’re home-bound, be sure to have a family member or neighbor check in with you periodically in case you need assistance.

When should I visit a medical provider?

Even a mild increase in COPD symptoms means you should consider scheduling a visit with your provider. Here’s why: those with more symptoms and more frequent exacerbations experience a more rapid decline in their lung function.

Most people don’t experience shortness of breath in daily life until they have lost about 50% of their lung capacity. Small changes beyond that might cause significant symptoms and be a sign of worsening control of COPD that could lead to hospitalization or worse. So, it’s important to act quickly if you are experiencing symptoms.

If you have COPD, visit a medical provider immediately if you experience:

  • A change in your symptoms for more than two consecutive days
  • Increased shortness of breath
  • More coughing

Seeing a medical provider early and preventing symptoms from worsening are key to preserving lung function. At the Vancouver Clinic, we take a comprehensive approach to COPD care by working closely with multiple specialties. These include allergy clinics, cardiology, ear/nose & throat, gastrointestinal, palliative care and psychiatry.

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Dr. Nicholas Wysham is a pulmonologist practicing at Vancouver Clinic’s 87th Avenue location. He focuses on caring for patients with advanced lung disease with an emphasis on improving quality of life.