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Why cold air and asthma don’t mix

Health

Why cold air and asthma don’t mix

If you are one of the millions of Americans with asthma, winter’s colder temperatures and dry air can make your symptoms worse.
“Dry and/or cold air can tighten the airways and can trigger asthma symptoms,” explains Stephanie Gonshor, a family nurse practitioner with Tidelands Health Family Medicine at Garden City. “The bronchial tubes – your airways – can became inflamed and start to swell due to cold. When they’re inflamed, they can’t take in as much air as they are normally able to.”

Cause

So how does that occur? The lungs have a lining that helps prevent them from drying out and protects them from bacteria and viruses. When the air is cold and dry, that lining tends to evaporate quicker than it can be replaced, Gonshor says.
The cold air also causes the body to release chemicals, such as histamines, that can cause inflammation of the airways, leading to an asthma attack.

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Exercising outdoors in colder, drier weather can exacerbate that phenomenon, Gonshor says, because people tend to breathe through their mouth rather than their nose when they’re active. Breathing through your mouth allows more cold, dry air to enter the lungs than breathing through your nose. 
“You can end up with difficulty breathing and wheezing, and that can be pretty scary,” Gonshor says.

Prevention

The best way to help prevent a cold-weather related asthma attack is to get your asthma is under control before winter arrives, Gonshor says. A variety of medications are available. Talk to a qualified care provider for help determining which option may be best for you. 
If exercising in the cold is a problem, Gonshor says a short-acting rescue inhaler can be used 15 to 30 minutes prior to a workout to help keep the lungs open.
Here are some of Gonshor’s other strategies to help manage and prevent an asthma attack while exercising outdoors in cooler temperatures:

  • Consider using a scarf or mask to cover your mouth while in cold weather. This can help warm the air entering your lungs as you inhale.
  • Although most people breathe through their mouths when exercising, try to breathe through the nose as much as possible, which helps to warm the air entering the lungs.
  • Keep an eye on the weather and consider exercising mid-day when the temperatures are warmer.
  • Come out of the cold and into a warm environment to help symptoms subside. In case of emergency, call 911. 

“To keep your lungs working at optimal performance, get an evaluation to determine the type of asthma you might have and your triggers,” Gonshor says. “And then have a plan when colder weather hits to reduce your risk for having an asthma attack.”

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