Hot, hazy and struggling to breathe - Cape Cod Healthcare

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Published on August 24, 2021

Hot, hazy and struggling to breathe

Humidity

Summer on Cape Cod brings high humidity that spells difficulty for people with respiratory conditions, like asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

“It makes it hard for them to breathe,” said Hyannis pulmonologist Scott A. Slater, MD. “For people with COPD, it can definitely be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

This summer’s humidity has been particularly high on Cape Cod, and it is on patients’ minds, he said.

“People are definitely noticing it,” he said. “Everyone has trouble breathing when it’s hot and humid.”

COPD refers to chronic bronchitis and emphysema, both commonly caused by cigarette smoking. An estimated 11.2 million Americans have COPD, of which 3.1 million have been diagnosed with emphysema, according to the National Emphysema Foundation. Many people have both conditions. 

Chronic bronchitis is an uncurable condition in which the airways in your lungs, the bronchi, are inflamed and mucus can build up in them.

Emphysema is a progressive disease that causes the tiny air sacs in your lungs to be damaged or destroyed, decreasing your ability to absorb oxygen from the air.

When it’s hot, your body works harder to maintain normal temperature, which increases the need for more oxygen. This makes it hard for people with COPD to breathe, and high humidity adds to the problem, according to the National Emphysema Foundation. In addition, summer allergies can worsen COPD.

Asthma affects about 25 million Americans in the U.S. It is an incurable condition in which the body’s airways become inflamed and can swell, narrow and produce mucus when exposed to triggers.

Humid air is typically hot, and can contain higher levels of dust mites, mold spores and ozone – all asthma triggers.

Mold grows in damp areas, both outside and in. Higher humidity indoors can cause it to flourish in your bathroom, or other spots where there’s moisture. Condensation, water vapor and leaks can contribute moisture, as can stagnant water in dishwashers, refrigerator drip pans and dehumidifiers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Damp conditions cause dust mites to increase in number. If your indoor humidity rises above 50 percent, they will multiply. Running a dehumidifier or air conditioner can help keep humidity down in your home, as can making sure clothes dryers are properly vented to the outdoors and drip pans emptied and cleaned. You can measure indoor humidity with an inexpensive tool called a hygrometer.

Tips for Tolerating the Heat

Dr. Slater gives this advice for ways people with chronic respiratory disorders can better tolerate hot, humid days:

  • Take your maintenance medication. For people with asthma, bring your rescue inhaler with you.
  • Don’t plan on exercising or other outdoor activities when the temperature is above 80 degrees.
  • Don’t go outside, if you don’t have to. If you have a social obligation that’s being held outdoors, consider cancelling.
  • If you do go out, know where you can rest in an air-conditioned room or car.

“Most people (with these conditions) know this,” Dr. Slater said, but the advice bears repeating.

Hot, humid summer days can be more trying for people with chronic respiratory conditions who are out of shape or overweight, he added. It may be difficult for them to maintain proper body temperature. Struggling to breathe can cause sweating, contribute to dehydration and set off asthma symptoms. It’s important to stay hydrated.

Humidity seems worse than usual this summer, and more constant. That may be a subjective observation, as Cape Cod typically has high humidity in the summer, but the season did start off with June warmer than normal, and July and August wetter than normal, according to meteorologist Rob Megnia of the National Weather Service in Taunton. He said cited data from Providence, RI, showing:

  • June: Average daily temperature of 72 degrees, 4 degrees above normal, with seven days 90 or higher. Total rainfall of 2.85 inches – normal.
  • July: Average daily temperature of 73, 1.5 degrees below normal, with five days 90 or above. Total rainfall of 7 inches – 4.2 inches above normal.
  • August: Average daily temperature (as of Aug. 12) of 73.4 degrees, with two days 90 or above. Total rainfall one inch above normal, so far.

“The Cape hasn’t seen as much rainfall,” Megnia said. “For most of the region, it was wetter than usual in July.”

He said his office doesn’t maintain records on humidity, but Weather Atlas cites the average humidity for Hyannis as 83 percent in June, 84 percent in July, and 81 percent in August.