Cold-Induced Asthma: How Does Cold Weather Affect You?

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

More than 25 million people in the United States have asthma, and many of them experience cold-induced symptoms during the winter. So while you may want to enjoy the snow and outdoor festivities, it could come at a cost.

Many factors play a role in asthma symptoms and attacks, but you have the power to prevent or minimize them.

Asthma and cold air: What’s the connection?

Many people have asthma, and some symptoms get worse when it gets colder outside. Why is that? If you love the snow and outdoor activities such as skiing and sledding, you may not know whether to look forward to the winter months or dread them.

Cold-induced asthma is also referred to as winter asthma and cold weather asthma. As conditions change outside, your internal respiratory system can be slow to react. Winter air tends to be colder and drier than summer air, leading to an increased chance of an asthma attack.

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When you breathe in cold air, your airways shrink and your lungs tighten up. This forces you to breathe harder to get enough oxygen. The temperature of the air can also cause your body to release histamine. This is a chemical that the immune system creates when it detects the presence of an allergen and can lead to asthma symptoms, such as wheezing.

Even more dangerous than the temperature is how dry the air is

When you breathe in dry air, your airways can become irritated. 

When this occurs, the protective mucus that usually lines your airways dries up faster than it can be replaced. As a result, the dry air rubs against the vulnerable lining, causing irritation. This can lead to painful, difficult breathing, coughing, and wheezing. 

Is it cold-induced asthma? Other potential causes

Although the cold dry air is a common trigger of asthma, other factors could also be irritating your airways in the winter. Being aware of what affects you can help you take precautions when needed.

Pollen

While pollen is usually associated with spring and summer, it is also present in late winter and very early spring. If you are allergic to pollen and spending time outdoors, it may be hard to determine whether the weather or the pollen is causing your asthmatic symptoms.

Common side effects of being allergic to pollen are skin reactions, itchy eyes, and nasal congestion that results in sneezing and a runny nose.

Exercise

Activities such as trail running, skiing, and shoveling snow will keep you outdoors for some time. These activities are great ways to break a sweat while keeping your heart rate up, but they can cause issues for people with asthma. 

People exercising in the cold with asthma

When you are exercising, no matter the environment, you tend to breathe through your mouth instead of your nose in order to get more oxygen. Your nose acts as a humidifier and filter when you breathe in air. It also warms up the air before it hits your airways and lungs.

This filtration process doesn’t happen when you breathe through your mouth during exercise. So not only are your lungs working extra hard while you are exercising, but you are also sending icy air to those lungs. This process can lead to trouble breathing and coughing.

General irritants

Whether you have asthma or not, you are more likely to suffer from respiratory issues during the winter months. This is because people tend to stay inside more, and there are many allergens and irritants indoors. There is also less air circulation because windows stay closed.

This means that allergens such as dust, mold, and pet dander are more securely trapped in your home and floating in the air. Tobacco smoke and strong scents may also trigger you.

Bacterial and viral infections tend to flourish when everyone is trapped inside. Many symptoms of infections are similar to those of asthma, and it can be hard to know the difference. If you’re not sure whether your symptoms are related to asthma or another illness, be sure to talk to your doctor. 

Symptoms of cold-induced asthma

Symptoms of cold-induced asthma usually occur shortly after being exposed to cold and dry air. To identify whether you are experiencing cold-induced asthma or an allergy, look out for the following symptoms, which are more indicative of asthma rather than allergy:

  • Coughing and wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest tightness and/or pain
  • Narrowed airways
  • Increase in mucus production
  • Inflamed respiratory tract
  • Trouble speaking

How to treat asthma without an inhaler in cold weather

While using your inhaler is the best way to calm asthmatic symptoms, you may not always have one with you. Try the following methods to prevent or minimize a cold-induced asthma attack.

Breathe through your nose

Breathing through your mouth in winter can irritate your lungs. On the other hand, breathing through your nose can provide your airways and lungs with warmer air that’s less likely to cause irritation.

If you are going to be exercising outdoors or want to eliminate the problems that breathing through your mouth can create, wearing a scarf or face mask over your mouth and nose can help.

This can also protect you from breathing in specific allergens, such as pollen.

Plan ahead

It is no fun to miss out on winter activities just because you have asthma, and there are a few measures you can take so you can still go out and enjoy yourself. Planning ahead can greatly lessen and even eliminate symptoms you may otherwise experience.

WeatherWell can help you plan your outdoor activities! Download free today to take control of your asthma symptoms!

As for your daily movement, try to work out indoors when you can. If you are going to be exercising outdoors, give yourself 5 to 10 minutes to warm up indoors first. This will get warm air into your lungs and get your blood flowing. Also, plan to be outdoors during the warmest time of day, usually between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.

Stay warm

If you can, avoid going outdoors when it is 10 degrees Fahrenheit or less. The lower the temperature gets, the worse your symptoms can be.

If you are outdoors and start to experience any respiratory discomfort or an attack, move indoors as quickly as possible. Depending on how severe the symptoms are, they should subside after a number of minutes. This will start to happen when your airways and lungs are warm and begin to open up. 

A man with asthma walking in the snow

Although it may be tempting to start a cozy fire in the fireplace, that may not be the best plan. The smoke from the fire can irritate your lungs and increase asthma symptoms. Instead, wrap yourself in blankets or hop in a warm shower or bath.

Remove allergens from your home

Set yourself up for success by removing or minimizing allergens in your house. Windows are usually closed during winter, and your heating system may be blasting. This means that dust, mold, and pet dander can more easily blow around in the air.

Using an air purifier can help control dust mites and mold. 

In addition, stay on top of vacuuming and dusting. Also be sure to wash your bedding frequently and consider using allergy-proof blankets.

These steps are helpful year-round, but they are essential in the colder months.

Cold-induced asthma and COVID-19: What you need to know

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many people are worried about getting sick.

If you have asthma, it’s important to know you are not at a higher risk of catching COVID-19 than others. But if you do catch it, the symptoms could be much worse because of your compromised respiratory system. Getting COVID-19 could lead to an asthma attack, pneumonia, or other lung diseases.

Getting vaccinated, avoiding crowds, and wearing a mask are all significant steps to prevent catching the coronavirus. Wearing a mask can also help prevent asthma symptoms by warming the air you breathe.

Final thoughts

It can be more challenging to control your asthma symptoms in the winter, but it is still possible. Doing things such as going outside when it’s warmest, eliminating allergens, and breathing through your nose can prevent your airways and lungs from shrinking and becoming irritated. Whether you prefer to spend your time indoors or outdoors, with these tips, you can stay comfortable and healthy when it’s cold outside.

July 25, 2022