18 Dangerous Habits That Could Be Making Your COPD Worse
Lungs affected by COPD are very sensitive, particularly to things like respiratory irritants, physical strain, and less-than-ideal breathing conditions (such as hot or humid air). Because of this, if you have COPD, you've probably noticed that your COPD symptoms tend to flare up in certain environments or when you do certain things.
Many common habits and everyday activities can trigger COPD symptoms, and your lungs tend to get even more sensitive to these things as the disease progresses. Because of this, a vital part of learning how to manage your COPD symptoms effectively is learning how to protect your lungs from these triggers.
In some cases, that means going out of your way to avoid—or find a different approach—to activities and situations that can make your symptoms worse. Recognizing these situations can be a bit tricky, however, because many things can affect your lungs without causing obvious or immediate symptoms.
For every COPD trigger that you notice, there are likely others that you don't. Unfortunately, the hazards you don't know about can actually be the most dangerous; you can expose yourself to them over and over again without even realizing they pose a risk.
For example, most people with COPD know they're supposed to stay away from cigarette smoke, but many don't realize that using common household cleaning solutions can also harm their lungs. And that's just one of a plethora of lesser-known activities that can harm your lungs and/or exacerbate COPD symptoms.
In this guide, we've put together a list of more than a dozen different activities that can be dangerous or risky for people with COPD. We cover the little things—like sleeping in the wrong position at night—and the bigger, complex issues, like dangerous eating habits and ignoring serious symptoms that could signal a medical emergency.
Some of the things you see on this list might seem familiar, but you're bound to learn something new as you go through this guide. Our goal is to help you recognize at least a few activities that you didn't know were risky before, and to provide you with some practical tools and techniques you can use to protect yourself from those hazards in the future.
You'll find links to many expert online resources throughout this guide that you can use to learn even more about COPD hazards and what you can do to avoid them. We've also provided links to several other practical COPD health and wellness guides from our Respiratory Resource Center, where you can find even more detailed advice and information that expands on many of the topics covered in this post.
Activities & Habits You Should Avoid if You Have COPD
Cooking Without Ventilation
Many people don't realize that cooking releases smoke, oils, and other pollutants into the air that are harmful to your lungs. In fact, research shows that people who cook often—and are thus exposed to these fumes repeatedly over time—have reduced lung function, increased respiratory symptoms, and a higher risk for developing COPD.
Even short-term exposure to cooking fumes can affect your lungs and make your COPD symptoms worse. Prolonged or repeated exposure is even more risky and has the potential to cause additional long-term damage to your lungs.
This is why it's important to use proper ventilation while you cook, especially if you or anyone in your household has COPD. This can not only substantially reduce your exposure to respiratory irritants while you're cooking, but it also prevents the pollution from building up inside your home.
If you have windows in your kitchen, opening them up before you start cooking is one simple way to ventilate the room. This isn't the most efficient form of ventilation, but it will allow the fumes to drift outdoors instead of staying trapped in the room.
You can ventilate your kitchen even more efficiently if you help the air current along using a fan (facing out the window) or a built-in kitchen vent. Some kitchens also have vent hoods installed directly over the stove to whisk away cooking fumes straight at the source.
However, kitchen vents and fume hoods only work this way if they are actually connected to a pipe that takes the air outside. Unfortunately, some “vents” that come in kitchens—especially those installed under cabinets and wall-mounted microwaves—are nothing more than recirculating fans that blow the fumes right back into the room.
To learn more about how to reduce indoor air pollution, check out our guide on How to Improve Your Air Quality at Home.
Drinking Alcohol Before Bed
While there's no blanket rule saying that people with COPD shouldn't drink, you should still be a little extra cautious with alcohol if you have COPD. One reason for this is that alcohol can cause a side effect known as respiratory depression, which causes you to breathe more slowly and take more shallow breaths than you normally would.
Mild respiratory depression also happens naturally during certain stages of sleep, which is another reason why many people with COPD have increased shortness of breath and difficulty sleeping through the night. If you drink alcohol too soon before bed, it can suppress your breathing even further, making it even harder to breathe effectively while you're asleep.
This is particularly dangerous if you have a health condition like sleep apnea or COPD that also affects your ability to breathe during the night. These conditions also cause nighttime breathing problems that significantly increase your risk for nighttime oxygen desaturation (PDF link), which happens when your blood oxygen levels fall too low while you sleep.
When you add a respiratory depressant like alcohol to the mix, you're even more likely to have trouble breathing and experience low blood oxygen levels at night. Unfortunately, because it happens while you're asleep, you might not even realize that you're not getting enough oxygen at night until it starts to take a toll on your health.
In the short term, nighttime oxygen deprivation can trigger uncomfortable morning symptoms (including headache, fatigue, and shortness of breath) that can linger throughout the day and make your COPD symptoms worse. Over the long term, nighttime oxygen desaturation can put you at risk for more serious health problems like cardiovascular damage and cognitive decline.
This is why, if you have COPD, you should be extra careful about not only how much alcohol you drink, but also when you drink it. That means drinking in moderation, avoiding alcohol too close to bedtime, and being careful not to mix alcohol with other medications that can cause respiratory depression (including opioids, sleeping pills, and other sedative medications).
Showering Without Ventilation
Showering is a difficult activity for many people with COPD. The physical exertion of showering makes many people feel breathless, and it tends to get worse as the heat and humidity from the shower fill up the room.
This can be difficult cope with every time you need to bathe, but ventilating your bathroom can make it much easier to bear. That's why, before you start your shower, you should always make sure there's a way for the heat and humidity to escape.
You can do this by opening a bathroom window or, ideally, using a proper ventilation fan. If your bathroom doesn't have either, it might be worth considering getting one installed; too much humidity doesn't only make it harder to breathe, but it also encourages mold growth.
Mold tends to grow in enclosed spaces where humidity lingers, and it's a serious respiratory hazard that makes COPD symptoms worse. In order to keep your home safe, you should always vent excess humidity and look out for signs of mold growth, especially in places like bathrooms, basements, walls, ceilings, and around water faucets and pipes.
Taking Over-the-Counter Medications (Without Your Doctor's Permission)
When you have a chronic disease like COPD, you have to be very cautious about what drugs and medications you take. Even things that might seem harmless, like supplements or over-the-counter medicines, have the potential to cause dangerous side effects or interact negatively with other medications.
For example, many cold medications, allergy medications, and decongestants that you can buy at the store can cause mild respiratory depression. This side-effect is usually not too much of a concern for healthy people, but it can worsen breathing problems in people with COPD.
It's also important to be aware that certain circumstances can amplify the side-effects of over-the-counter medications, which is why you should always read the directions and warnings for every medication you take. Fore example, medications that usually only cause mild respiratory depression can cause moderate to severe respiratory depression if you take them at night, in large does, or in combination with another medication that lists respiratory depression as a potential side effect.
This highlights the danger of drug interactions, which happens when you take two medications (or a medication and a supplement) that have different effects on your body when they're combined compared to when you take them alone. Depending on the type of interaction, this can make a medication less effective, make its effects stronger, or cause additional side effects to appear.
To be on the safe side, you should never take any new medications or supplements without getting input from your doctor first. Additionally, you should always tell your doctor about every medicine, herbal product, and supplement you take, no matter how small or insignificant you think it might be.
Smoking is a huge lung hazard—one of the biggest—and it's important to bring up even though it might seem obvious to some. We want to emphasize that quitting smoking is always beneficial for your health, no matter how many years you've been smoking and no matter how advanced your COPD has become.
Unfortunately, many people with COPD don't think it's worth it to quit. It's a common misconception that it won't make much of a difference to stop smoking once you've already developed a smoking-related disease.
However, this way of thinking is not only false, but downright dangerous. Quitting smoking at any time has numerous short-term and long term benefits for your overall health and your COPD.
Research suggests that quitting smoking can actually improve your COPD symptoms, slow down lung function decline, and generally slow down the progression of the disease. On the other hand, continuing to smoke while you have COPD can worsen your COPD symptoms, make your lungs more prone to infection (PDF link), and cause you to have more frequent COPD exacerbations.
Smoking can also affect your baseline breathing ability, as COPD patients who smoke have quicker lung function decline (PDF link). What's more, COPD isn't the only smoking-related disease you can get; if you continue smoking, you increase your risk for lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, diabetes, stroke, and more.
There's a reason that quitting smoking is considered a vital, first-line treatment for COPD, and you shouldn't take it lightly. Even though quitting smoking is hard (really, really hard!), it's more than worth all the work it takes to make it happen.
And don't worry! You don't have to figure it out all on your own; there are tons of quit-smoking resources out there you can use for help.
If you'd like to learn how to get started or how to find all the quit-smoking resources you could ever need, check out our comprehensive, 3-part guide on how to quit smoking:
- Part 1: Overcoming Doubts & Finding Resources to Help You Quit
- Part 2: Coping with Nicotine Withdrawal & Choosing a Quit Smoking Medication
- Part 3: Taking the First Steps & Strategies for Staying Smoke Free
Doing Dusty, Dirty, & Hazardous Jobs
Pretty much all allergens and small particulates, including dust, pollen, and mold, can harm your lungs and trigger COPD symptoms if you breathe them in. Many chemicals emit lung-toxic fumes as well, and they can come from unexpected places, including household products and home construction materials like treated wood, varnishes, and paint.
Because of this, people with COPD should generally try to avoid going dirty jobs, particularly work that kicks up dust (and other airborne particles) or might expose you to chemical fumes. This includes many types of home maintenance projects, including home repair, renovations, and heavy cleaning projects around the house.
Whenever possible, you should ask someone else to help you with these jobs—or at least the most risky parts—so you don't have to put your already-compromised lungs at further risk. If you have the means, you should consider hiring professionals to do hazardous construction, renovation, and cleaning jobs (e.g. mold removal) for you.
You should also take care with materials that can release hazardous fumes into your house, including many types of paints, lumber, adhesives, and even new carpets and flooring. If you can't avoid them while they're being installed or used in your home, consider staying somewhere else for awhile until the fumes have time to dissipate.
If you have no other choice but to do a risky project on your own, make sure you wear respiratory protection and—most importantly—that use the appropriate type of respiratory protection for the job. Some things are fine to do with dust masks while others require full respirators for safety, and if you choose the wrong equipment it might not offer any protection at all.
To learn more about the correct type of respiratory protection equipment to use for various jobs, you can reference this guide from the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Going Outside When Air Pollution is High
Research shows that air pollution can have a significant impact on people with COPD; it can worsen breathing symptoms, increase your risk for exacerbation and hospitalization, and even increase your risk of death. Because of this, you should do your best to be mindful about when you go outside and try to stay indoors when your local pollution index is high.
You can find your current air pollution levels by checking your city's air quality index (AQI), which you can get from your local weather station or by looking up your zip code on airnow.gov. The air quality index is an simple, color-coded scale that tells you how healthy or unhealthy the outside air is to breathe.
In general, anytime air pollution rises above the yellow (moderate) zone, you should do two things: First, you should avoid spending time outside, and especially avoid doing any exercise or strenuous activity outdoors; that's because, when you exert yourself, you breathe in more air—and thus and more pollution—compared to when you're at rest.
Second, you should keep your doors and windows shut as much as possible on high-pollution days. You can still air out your home when air pollution is low, but if you don't check your local AQI first, you could accidentally invite all kinds of outdoor pollution to enter your home.
When you do exercise outside or do other activities outdoors, you should try to schedule them for times when air pollution is the lowest; often this is in the earlier and later hours of the day. You should also try to keep your plans flexible, that way you can easily reschedule them if the air quality ends up being too poor.
It helps if you familiarize yourself with the air quality patterns in your area, including how pollution levels tend to change throughout the day. If you look up your local air quality report on airnow.com, you can also get a breakdown of recent hour-by-hour trends.
(Image text: To see data on pollution trends in your area, you can look up your local air quality report on airnow.gov and click the button “local trends.”)
If you have seasonal allergies, you should also avoid spending too much time outside when pollen levels are high. You can look up your city or zip code on pollen.com to get all kinds of helpful allergen information, including your local pollen report, future allergen forecasts, and a breakdown of the types of pollen most prevalent in your area.
Cleaning with Common Products
Studies show that many household cleaning products release harmful fumes and aerosols that irritate your lungs and even cause permanent lung function decline. Ammonia and bleach, for example, are both lung irritants that are used in a wide range of different cleaning products.
If you have COPD, you should try to limit your exposure to these and other lung irritants as much as you can to avoid triggering COPD symptoms and doing further, unnecessary damage to your lungs. Instead, choose products that don't contain strong chemicals like ammonia and bleach, and try to find products labeled as having reduced irritants, including fewer fragrances and VOC's.
You can use the EPA's safer chemical ingredient list for reference of what types of chemicals you should seek out and which ones you should avoid. You can also look for cleaning products with the EPA's “Safer Choice” label, or browse through the EPA's catalog of these products online.
Another alternative is to make your own cleaning solutions at home using common—and safer—household products like vinegar, water, baking soda, and soap. You'll find that most cleaning jobs don't require anything fancy and can be done with simple mixtures you can make yourself at home.
To learn more about how to make your own DIY cleaning products, check out this guide on how to reduce chemical irritants in your home. There, you'll step-by-step instructions for making alternatives to several different types of commercial cleaning products, including a scrubbing solution, all-purpose cleaner, and grease-cutting solution.