Cold Weather’s Effect on Asthma-By Kathy Trumbull, MD
For many people the weather has turned frightfully cold, with temperatures at least below freezing and many times below zero. Asthma sufferers can be affected significantly and hospital admissions for asthma routinely increase during cold weather.
Cold outdoor air will not contain as many allergens as warm air so allergens are not believed to be the cause of difficulties when outside. It is believed that one of the main issues comes from the dryness of the cold air. It irritates the lining of the respiratory tract which in turn causes a tightening of the muscles lining this tract. This can cause coughing, wheezing and a feeling of chest tightness. Continued irritation will lead to inflammation and increased mucous production which will add to the discomfort. Cold air can reach the lungs and when it does it can cause histamine release. This chemical can cause wheezing. Cold air will also increase the thickness of mucus being produced in the respiratory tract. This makes it harder to clear it.
Indoor air quality is usually worse in the winter because of less air circulation. It can carry more indoor allergens. Mold, dust mites and pet dander can be kept under control with diligent cleaning. The winter months also bring more sinus infections and viral respiratory infections. These can trigger asthma symptoms. Keep in mind that for some the only symptom is increased coughing. Be careful when deciding what is causing the coughing—asthma versus an infection. Consult a physician for any infection that is not clearing quickly. Try to avoid catching the latest viruses so don’t forget to get a flu shot.
Keep your asthma in good control. This is even more important in cold weather. Keep taking all of your regular preventive medications as prescribed. Consider taking one or two puffs of your fast-acting inhaler prior to going out into the cold. Make sure that those people you will be with know how to help you if an asthma attack starts. Explain what to look for that could indicate you are starting to have problems so that they can alert you.
Whenever possible avoid cold air exposure.If you routinely exercise outdoors, find places where you can exercise indoors. You do not need to skip your usual exercise routine, just change its location. Be on alert for symptoms. Don’t ignore an increase in coughing or a slight feeling of shortness of breath. Have your treatment with you and treat early. Head home early if need be.
If you know that you will be out in cold air for an extended period of time try to breathe through your nose as much as possible. The nasal passages will help to put warmth and moisture into the air before it reaches the lower respiratory tract where it could cause problems. Avoid gulping air through your mouth while moving since that air will miss the natural warming and moisturizing. Wearing a scarf over your nose and mouth can also help.
Prevention whenever possible is the key. And always be ready to treat symptoms of your asthma so that you can still enjoy the winter- By Kathy Trumbull, MD.