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Winter Weather and Your Asthma

How to keep your asthma under control in the cold
By Jacqueline Moran, MD

An asthma attack occurs when your bronchial tubes (which carry air to and from the lungs) become inflamed after exposure to certain triggers. As they become inflamed, the bronchial tubes narrow, making it harder for air to pass through. As a result, it can be difficult to catch your breath or breathe normally. During an asthma attack, it is common to experience symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath and wheezing.

You may notice more frequent or severe asthma symptoms during the winter. This is because as the air becomes colder, it is also drier. Your bronchial tubes are normally lined with a thin layer of fluid and mucus. As you breathe in dry air, the fluid, which helps air pass through more easily, evaporates faster than it can be replaced. This dries out and irritates the bronchial tubes, causing them to become inflamed. Cold air also increases your body’s mucus production. Your body uses the mucus lining in your airways to help filter out harmful particles from the air you breathe. When too much mucus is produced, it becomes thicker and stickier than normal, increasing your chances of catching a cold or virus.

While you may not be able to totally prevent exposure to all asthma triggers, there are steps you can take to help you breathe easier this winter. Allergist Jacqueline Moran, MD, shares tips to keep your asthma under control as temperatures drop.

Protect yourself from a cold or flu virus

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends an annual flu shot for most people ages six months and older. For those with asthma, viruses including the flu can trigger an asthma attack or make asthma symptoms worse. You are also at a higher risk of developing other flu-related complications.

Your primary care physician may also recommend you receive a pneumonia vaccine for added protection.

In addition to vaccinations, frequent hand washing can also protect against the cold and flu. Keep alcohol-based hand sanitizers handy when you are in public places and regularly wipe down shared surfaces at home with disinfecting wipes to stop the spread of germs and bacteria.

Increasing your fluid intake can also help control and thin the mucus lining in your lungs, reducing your risk of catching a seasonal virus.

Safe-guard your home

Each year, ideally before the temperatures drop, it is important to check your heater and replace air filters in your home. During colder weather, we spend more time indoors, which means increased exposure to dust, mold and other irritants. As your heating system warms your home, it can also blow dust and other particles into the air and trigger your asthma symptoms. A dehumidifier can help you maintain good air quality in your home during the dry, stuffy winter months.

Washing your bedding each week in hot water, as well as vacuuming and dusting more frequently, can also help reduce the number of allergens in your home.

Additionally, avoid wood-burning fires. While sitting by a warm fire can be relaxing and the smoke from burning wood is not as hazardous as tobacco smoke, any type of smoke can irritate your lungs.

Breathe through your nose

Try to breathe through your nose rather than your mouth when you’re outside during colder weather. Blood vessels in your nose are able to warm up the air you breathe in before it reaches your lungs. Breathing through your mouth skips this warming process, sending cold air directly to your lungs. Bundling up with a scarf and/or face mask that covers your nose and mouth can also be an effective way to keep airflow as warm as possible.  

Move your workouts inside

During physical activity, your body requires more oxygen. To do this, your body speeds up your breathing, often through your mouth, because it allows you to take in more air. When you engage in physical activity outside during cold weather, it can overwhelm your lungs by delivering a large volume of cold air in a short period of time. This irritates your lungs and increases the likelihood of an asthma attack.

If you plan to exercise outside during the winter, try shifting to the afternoon when temperatures are typically highest. Warming up for about 15-20 minutes before heading outside can also boost your lung function and reduce asthma symptoms.

Have a plan

No matter what season, ensuring you are prepared to handle an asthma attack is important. An allergy and asthma specialist can help you develop a personalized treatment plan. If you notice your symptoms worsening in the winter, your doctor may recommend taking a preventive dose of your asthma medicine about a half hour before going outside. This will help open your airways. Your allergist will also help you create an asthma action plan, which details how to handle an acute asthma attack and control your asthma long-term. Your asthma action plan will also include important information about symptoms to watch for, when to call your allergist and when to seek emergency medical care.

If your symptoms don’t improve or they worsen, be sure to alert your allergist. They may recommend changing your medicines and/or other strategies to manage your symptoms. Keeping your asthma under control may take a little more effort during the winter, but with a little preparation, you can reduce your risk of an attack. For more information about our team of Allergists, or to schedule an appointment, visit dupagemedicalgroup.com/asthma-allergy/.

Topics and Subtopics: Allergies, Asthma & Respiratory Problems

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