COPD Triggers

Identify your personal triggers

They can quickly lead to a worsening of symptoms.

Managing or avoiding chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) triggers is an important part of living well with COPD. When exposed to a trigger, people with COPD may notice an increase in cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, or phlegm. A trigger can quickly lead to an exacerbation, so identifying your personal triggers early is key.

 

It may take time for someone living with COPD to identify their triggers since everyone is affected differently by the same things. One person may have trouble catching their breath in cold weather while another may have a coughing fit walking through a perfume department. Since everyone has their own unique set of triggers, it’s important to identify them.

 

If you or someone you love is struggling to control COPD symptoms, review this list of triggers as some of them can have a sneaky way of making things worse without us realizing it.

Infection

Infections—especially ones that affect the lungs and airways—can be very dangerous for people living with COPD. Infections can be caused by viral (e.g., the common cold or flu) or bacterial pathogens (e.g., Haemophilus influenzae, Moraxella catarrhalis, or Streptococcus pneumoniae).

Infections can make COPD symptoms worse and may even lead to another serious illness like pneumonia.

Reduce your risk of infection by:

• Wearing a mask in large crowds to avoid exposure to germs

• Washing hands often with soap or using hand sanitizer

• Staying away from sick contacts

• Getting vaccines as required (e.g., pneumonia, flu, etc.)

 

Signs of infection might include more coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, or phlegm than usual. If you develop symptoms:

• Refer to your COPD action plan

• Contact your doctor within the first 48 hours

• Take puffers, steroids, or antibiotics if prescribed

• Increase your supplemental oxygen if prescribed

• Get plenty of rest and fluids

Did you know? During the COVID-19 pandemic, 43% fewer people with COPD became sick enough to need a hospital stay according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information’s Discharge Abstract Database (2018-2019 versus 2021-2022). This amazing decrease is likely due to precautions such as masking, sanitizing, and social distancing.

An easily overlooked source of infection is water misters, such as essential oil diffusers and humidifiers. Although misting devices can benefit people with COPD, they can also be dangerous if not used carefully.

Mist is made up of water droplets, which can carry viral or bacterial pathogens that might cause infection. If you use a misting device, clean and disinfect it thoroughly and regularly to avoid harmful bacteria being spread into the air.

Temperature and weather changes

COPD symptoms can get worse due to temperature or weather fluctuations. Some people with COPD are triggered by cold, dry air; hot air; or high humidity.

One medical study shows that temperatures below freezing and above 32°C are especially dangerous. Manage weather- and temperature-related triggers by:

• Postponing errands during weather or temperatures that are known triggers

• In cold weather, wearing a face covering to avoid breathing in cold air

• In hot weather, going out early or late in the day to avoid extreme heat

• In hot or humid weather, using air conditioning or a fan

 

Keeping the humidity in the home relatively low can also help control dust and mould accumulation. This can be done by running exhaust fans during and after showering or bathing, or running a dehumidifier if your home is particularly damp.

Air Pollution

Air pollution can come from many different sources, both indoor and outdoor. It can include smoke, dust, pollen, chemicals, car pollution, mold, perfumes, and even pet dander. Air pollution can irritate the lungs causing COPD symptoms to suddenly get worse.

Chemical Aerosols and sprays

Chemical aerosols

Chemical aerosols include perfumes, hairspray, and some household cleaners. If these are triggers for you, limit exposure by:

• Switching to natural, unscented cleaners (e.g., vinegar and baking soda)

• Avoiding cleaners or products with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, and toluene

• Avoiding bleach and ammonia

• Avoiding perfume

• Requesting your hairdresser not use hairspray

Cigarette smoke

Cigarette Smoke

Whether or not you smoke, cigarette smoke can trigger a COPD flare-up. Everyone with COPD should limit their exposure by:

• Quitting or cutting down on smoking

• Avoiding secondhand smoke

• Eliminating any smoking indoors

Vacuum dust

Dust

Dust can trigger worse symptoms for some people living with COPD. If dust is a trigger for you, limit your exposure by:

• Removing carpeting

• Wearing a mask and opening a window while cleaning to limit exposure

• Cleaning more frequently to avoid dealing with large volumes of dust

• Maintaining as clean a space as possible to decrease dust

• Asking a family member or hired housecleaner to dust and vacuum, if possible

• Maintaining or replacing vacuum and furnace filters regularly

Mold window

Mold/mildew

Recent studies have shown a possible link between mold/mildew and COPD flareups. Reduce mold and mildew exposure by:

• Removing all visible mold at home

• Using an air conditioner or dehumidifier during humid months

• Running exhaust fans in kitchens and bathrooms that vent directly outside

• Opening a window during and after vacuuming, if possible

• Asking guests to remove shoes when entering the home

• Sleeping with windows closed since the concentration of airborne mold spores tends to be greatest at night (when the weather is cool and damp).

Pet brushing

Pet Dander

Pet dander can be irritating to people with COPD, especially if they are allergic to it. But keeping pets well-groomed can make a huge difference. If pet dander is a trigger for you, try:

• Arranging for regular pet grooming (e.g., brushing and trimming)

• Avoiding letting a pet get close to your face

• Washing your hands after petting any animal

• Cleaning regularly to avoid excess buildup of animal hair

Burning wood

Burning wood and biofuels

Wood heating and burning biofuels for heating or cooking can be significant triggers for some people with COPD. Limit exposure by:

• Eliminating wood-burning stoves

• Switching to natural gas furnaces or electric heating

• Avoiding outdoor bonfires

• Avoiding kerosene- or coal-fuelled fires

• Ventilating your kitchen well, especially while cooking with natural gas

Smog, air pollution

Smog

Exposure to air pollution can cause COPD flare-ups. Be air aware by:

• Checking the air quality index in your area before heading out

• Limiting the amount of time you spend in areas where pollution is high (e.g., busy streets during rush hour and industrial zones)

• Planning outdoor exercise for times when air pollution is lower

 

Canada has also seen an increase in numbers of wildfires which leads to poor air quality.

You can check the air quality in your city via the Air Quality Health Index.

What works to clear out indoor air pollution?

Clean air is essential for everyone—but it’s especially important for people with COPD. A variety of airborne particles can irritate your lungs. Some people with COPD use air purifiers to clear the air, but the science on whether this is effective or not is still uncertain.

 

Here’s what we know so far:

 

HEPA filters. As the gold-standard filter for removing airborne particles, HEPA filters use mechanical ventilation (fans that push air through pleated fibres like foam or fibreglass) to trap particles in the air.

 

Activated carbon. Although it can catch larger particles, activated carbon typically misses smaller ones. Some purifiers combine a HEPA filter with an activated carbon filter to trap both odours and pollutants.

 

Electrostatic air purifiers and ozone generators. These kinds of purifiers use ozone to change the charge of particles in the air so they stick to surfaces and can be cleaned up. But ozone can irritate the lungs—a bad choice for people with COPD.

 

Ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light can kill germs like viruses, bacteria, and fungi in the air. But to do so, the light must be strong and the purifier may need to stay on for minutes or hours at a time.

 

Ionizers. Ionizers negatively charge particles in the air so that they stick to plates in the machine or other surfaces so you can then clean them away.

 

For best results, choose a purifier with a HEPA filter and regularly wash or change it according to the instructions. Also, reduce dust in your home by having your home’s ducts cleaned regularly. Remove carpeting, which can hide all kinds of debris and dust, to improve the overall air quality in your home.

A big part of living well with COPD is managing triggers. It’s important to educate others - especially family and friends - so that they can avoid accidentally exposing their loved ones to harmful triggers.

Want to know more?

Want to find out more? Learn how exercise can help people living with COPD.