With frigid air comes cozy sweaters, twinkling lights, and roaring fires on freezing nights! This heartwarming rhyme paints a pretty wintertime picture, but the cold air can deliver big breathing troubles to people with asthma. Coughing, wheezing, and pain or tightness in the chest affects 26 million Americans,1 bringing distress to one of the body’s most basic functions: breathing.
Upper respiratory infections (URIs), or colds, also affect lung health this time of year. “One of the most common triggers of asthma is URIs, and these illnesses are much more common in the winter months,” explains Kyon Hood, MD, FAAP, President of Teladoc Health Physicians.
Whether it’s you or your child experiencing asthma symptoms this winter, Dr. Hood offers tips for breathing easier when the big chill takes hold.
Infection and asthma
Certain seasonal sicknesses can trigger asthma flare-ups that include trouble breathing, chest tightness, wheezing and difficulty talking. Common wintertime infections like URIs, influenza virus (the flu), or pneumonia can cause the airways to narrow due to swelling.
If asthma has already been diagnosed, it’s important to take your medications as prescribed during the course of the sickness, such as an inhaler or nebulizer machine that opens up the narrower airways, Dr. Hood says. “But if it’s more severe, you may require oral steroids to treat the airway inflammation associated with asthma,” he adds.
Dr. Hood also emphasizes that it’s very important for children to use inhalers with spacer devices, “to ensure they receive all of the inhaled medicine into their lungs,” he says.
Sometimes, regular asthma medications fail to relieve the breathing problems that come with the cold or flu, causing mild discomfort that lasts for several days or even weeks.2 Be in touch with a family physician if a respiratory illness has caused an asthma flare-up; a prescription drug, over-the-counter medicine, or other action plan could ease symptoms. Keep hydrated and rest so your body can heal.
Asthmatics should use a peak flow meter to monitor how well their lungs are working from day to day2 over the course of the illness. If your asthma symptoms are intense, get attention right away for high fever, sharp pain in the chest, blue or gray lips, or difficulty walking.
Since common wintertime infections—and their related breathing problems—typically must run their course, the best thing you can do is be proactive about your lung health and general condition. Stick to an asthma treatment plan, get your annual flu shot, and a pneumococcal vaccine. Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth, and wash hands frequently. Be conscious of sharing food, drinks, utensils, or even inhalers with other people. Keeping germs away is the best way to stay healthy and breathe easier this winter.
Winter’s cold air is dry, which can make the airways irritated and swollen. This can lead to shortness of breath and wheezing—especially when exercising. Cold air also causes the airways to create histamine, which can trigger asthma symptoms.3
“Knowing your triggers and avoiding them is key to preventing asthma attacks,” Dr. Hood says. “If exercise causes attacks, doctors recommend using a rescue inhaler—some examples are albuterol, ProAir®, or Ventolin—just before exercise, especially outdoors, as with sports.”
Exercise causes your body to need more oxygen, quickening breathing. This cold air comes in fast and often leads to shortness of breath in winter’s coldest temps. Avoid exercising outdoors when the thermometer dips below 10 degrees. If temps in the 20s or 30s trigger labored breathing during physical activity, considering moving your fitness routine indoors until spring.
If you decide to be active outdoors in the extreme cold, try covering your mouth and nose with a scarf or face mask to warm the air you take in. Drink plenty of fluids, and complete a warmup routine before you start any regimen that’s vigorous. Use an inhaler before heading outdoors, and keep one in your pocket in case an asthma attack strikes.
Cold weather also keeps hibernators indoors, where they rest and relax amid fluffy pillows and snuggly blankets. Wash these—and your bed sheets—frequently to tackle dust mites, which often trigger asthma. Vacuum and dust regularly and pay attention to other indoor triggers, such as pets or mold, that may make breathing worse in the winter. Scented candles and glowing fires create a cozy setting, but can irritate airways.
What’s the plan, Stan?
By consulting with a physician proactively, you can keep a mild flare-up from spiraling into a full-blown asthma attack. Since winter brings so many challenges to asthma sufferers, it’s important to have a plan to manage the effects of cold air exposure, indoor allergens, and the spread of infection.
Even if you haven’t had a flare-up recently, follow your doctor’s instructions for controlling asthma.4 Make sure you’re taking medications as prescribed, and have an action plan for when symptoms worsen or you catch a cold.
Our national network of U.S.-board certified Teladoc physicians is available on demand, 24/7, to assess your condition and review your action plan. Download our app or sign in now to request a visit so you breathe easier—no matter what the thermometer reads.
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