A new study suggests that people with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can’t handle even mild exposures to the elements.
The findings, published in the journal ACS Medicine, suggest that it’s best to get a little sun exposure during the winter months, even if it’s not enough to get the benefits of a good sunscreen.
“I don’t know if we can tell patients to go for a few minutes a day,” said lead author Rachel L. Sauer, PhD, an associate professor of respiratory medicine and of biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan Health System.
“We don’t want to give them false hope that this is something they can just go out and do in a day.
The best way to get their skin protected is to get some exposure to UV light.”
Sauer and her colleagues followed about 50 patients with chronic obstructor pulmonary disease, or COPD, for two years, and they found that those who were exposed to the summer months tended to get worse symptoms and longer-lasting lung infections.
They also found that patients who were treated with medications, such as asthma medication or steroids, tended to see less improvement over the course of the study.
Sometime during the second year, the team also looked at the impact of sunscreen use, and found that the sunscreen users were less likely to have worse lung infections and longer hospital stays.
They then tested the efficacy of sunscreen products in these patients.
“The results suggest that sunscreen use could reduce the risks of COPD exacerbations,” Sauer said.
“This study is not definitive, but it does show that sunscreen is not necessarily the answer for patients with COPD.”
Seder, who also serves as a professor of medicine at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said it’s possible that the findings could have broader implications.
“If this is the case, we should consider what kinds of products we use in the summer and what types of people we have in our clinic,” she said.
For the study, Seder and her team recruited patients who had a history of asthma, COPD and other respiratory illnesses and who were between the ages of 18 and 60.
The researchers randomly assigned the patients to one of two groups: those who received a daily vitamin D supplement and those who got a daily patch of sunscreen.
They tested the participants’ lung function with a pulmonary function test (PFT), a device that measures oxygen saturation, before and after a daily dose of sunscreen and a daily placebo patch.
Seder said it was important to get as many participants as possible because many COPD patients require additional treatment.
The results showed that the participants in the sunscreen group were less susceptible to severe exacerbations, but that the patch group showed the greatest improvement in lung function, she said, because it took longer to recover.
Senter also noted that people who take a daily sunscreen and don’t use medications are still at risk of worsening their condition.
“Even if the benefit is small, you don’t always get the benefit that you expect,” Senter said.
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Howard J. Hughes Medical Institu- tute, the American Heart Association, and the Michigan Health Department.
Contact Rachel Sauer: (517) 267-1132 or [email protected]