how to have healthy lungs in time for winter

3. Try breathing exercises

If you’ve already suffered a bout of severe coronavirus, you may have encountered what Dr Patel calls “patterns of dysfunctional breathing”, which is when people often breathe differently to how they normally would. “This is in addition to rare sequelae such as fibrosis (thickening and hardening of the lungs) and clots in the lungs patients may have suffered from,” he says. In some cases, it can lead to a sensation of breathlessness and is being seen in a number of patients following Covid-19.

“Specific breathing exercises, which teach you how to control your breathing can be very useful in the setting of dysfunctional breathing patterns,” says Dr Patel. “It is, though, a diagnosis of exclusion usually as other issues such as problems with the airways and the lung tissue itself need to be explored.”

Deep breathing exercises can help to lessen feelings of anxiety and stress, which are common for someone who experienced severe symptoms of coronavirus, or was admitted to a hospital. One simple exercise to try involves standing up with your back arched, breathing in and holding your breath for 10 seconds before exhaling.

4. Stop smoking

We shouldn’t really need to tell you but, with the national quitting month Stoptober around the corner, there’s never been a better time to kick the habit. While the science around smoking and coronavirus is still uncertain, we do know that smoking remains a major cause of lung conditions, and can impact the ability of your lungs to repair themselves.  

“Constant exposure to smoke has an impact on your lungs’ ability to fight infection, because of a local impact as well as a more systemic impact,” says Dr Patel. “As we all get older, our lung function drops – that’s a consequence of ageing – but with smoking, lung function drops more significantly.”

A study published in January this year in the journal Nature found that if smokers quit, their risk of developing diseases like lung cancer will fall due to healthy cells emerging to replace some of their old tobacco-damaged ones. The study found nine out of every 10 lung cells in current smokers had mutations, including those that can cause cancer. But in ex-smokers, many of those damaged cells had been replaced by healthy ones; up to 40 per cent of the total lung cells in ex-smokers were healthy, four times more than in their still-smoking counterparts.

5. Take vitamin D

In recent years vitamin D has been championed as a wonder cure for many ailments, and it seems lung health is no exception. A study released in 2018 found that higher levels of Vitamin D were associated with improved lung function. Of course in the summer months, a quick burst of sunlight shouldn’t be too much of a problem. However, as autumn approaches it may be worth investing in some vitamin D supplements. Alternatively, try tweaking your diet to include more oily fish, egg yolks and red meat, which are all good sources of vitamin D.

6. Keep your house warm

According to figures from the British Lung Foundation, around 8 million people – over 12 per cent of the population – have been diagnosed with asthma. And when winter approaches, one of the biggest triggers can be dust mites, which thrive in the warmer temperatures once the central heating is switched on. 

“In the Autumn, mold can grow in the leaves that have fallen from the trees. Mold spores can also grow inside if the house is damp, both of which give people allergic reactions, and can trigger people’s asthma attacks,” says Kirby.

To prevent this, it’s important to heat your house to a comfortable temperature. A government study undertaken in 2018 found that in the UK, the average temperature of a home is 17.7°C, whilst the recommended level is 21°C (70°F). However, this varies for everyone and the elderly may need their house to be slightly warmer.

7. Exercise appropriately 

It can be tempting to skip your morning jog on a frosty morning. However, experts are in agreement that it’s vital to keep up your daily exercise routine in the winter months. Although aerobic exercises, such as jogging and walking, can’t improve lung function, they can help to control lung capacity by between 5 and 15 per cent, according to the Lung Institute.

“If you’re not exercising, your muscles can de-condition which is a core component of lung health,” says Dr Patel. “Some people exercise less in the winter because it feels harder. When combined with possible cycles of infection it can impact on lung health. It’s about taking the right precautions to keep you healthy.”  

This doesn’t have to be a really long run either. Even something as small as getting off the bus one stop early can help to get your lungs working. If you are ill with Covid, it’s important not to overdo it (and you must stay home). However, if you feel well enough to get out of bed, light exercises can help to prevent atelectasis, a partial or complete collapse of part of the lung which can be caused by immobility in hospital.

8. Avoid polluted spaces (if you can)

This is a tricky one for those who live in cities. In his clinic, Dr Patel has seen patients whose lung health has worsened after moving to London. It is evident that limiting exposure to air pollution can help the lungs and we know this to be true at a population level.  “Avoiding anything that irritates and inflames the lungs will help them,” says Dr Patel. “They’re a remarkable and resilient organ.”

Experts at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found strong correlations between atmospheric levels of toxic air and an increased risk of death from coronavirus. However, their statistical model was unable to untangle fully other potential factors such as ethnicity and deprivation, so there’s no cause for panic just yet.

If you are concerned about the effects of air pollution on your lungs, swapping your car journey for a bike ride can be a way of limiting your exposure. A 2014 study found that people in cars were exposed to higher levels of particulate matter – the tiny particles that can get deep into the lungs – and black carbon than those travelling along the same streets on bikes.

If you want to kill two birds with one stone, invest in a face mask that has a pollution filter too. The Cambridge Mask Company provide nearly 100 per cent protection from particulate pollution such as PM2.5 and PM0.3.

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