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Cold Induced Asthma: Causes and Prevention

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Living with asthma means you need to constantly be on the look out for triggers and always be prepared for an unexpected attack. While pollen, dust, and animal dander are the common suspects, cold weather too can sometimes trigger an asthma attack. There is no separate clinical name for cold weather asthma or winter asthma. But if you suffer from asthma, taking the necessary precautions as the temperature outside drops can help you avoid any unexpected flare-ups.

What Causes Cold Weather Asthma

What Causes Cold Weather Asthma_Cold Induced Asthma

An estimated 300 million people worldwide suffer from asthma, according to the World Health Organization. Different people may have different triggers that can cause asthma flare-ups. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) lists cold weather as one of the more common causes that can lead to asthma.1 Some of the causes of winter asthma include:

Cold Air

Cold Air_Cold Induced Asthma

Winters can be an especially difficult time if you have asthma. Bronchial tubes that carry air to your lungs are lined by cells that produce a thin layer of mucous. The mucous not only keeps the airways lubricated but also prevents tiny dust particles from entering your lungs. The cold, dry winter air can cause this moisture to evaporate, which could cause irritation and swelling that triggers asthma.

Infections

Infections_Cold Induced Asthma

Winter is when most people get infected with cold, viral flu, and sinusitis. Since most indoor spaces are kept insulated in the winters, these infections easily spread to others. If you have asthma, respiratory infections that lead to swelling of the sinuses and airways can also cause an increase in asthma symptoms.

Outdoor Exercise

Outdoor Exercise_Cold Induced Asthma

If you have asthma, research says that winter may not be the best time for you for you to exercise outdoors because the low temperature and dry air could cause an attack.2 During normal breathing, the air is warmed and humidified by your nose. However, physical activity makes you breathe through your mouth allowing the cold, dry air to reach the lung directly. This makes you more susceptible to asthma flare-ups during winters.

Common Symptoms Of Cold Weather Asthma

Common Symptoms Of Cold Weather Asthma_Cold Induced Asthma- Causes and Prevention

The symptoms of winter asthma are usually the same as general asthma. The most common symptom is wheezing, which causes a whistling sound when you breathe. Some of the other symptoms include:

•    Shortness of breath
•    Chest tightness or pain
•    Chronic coughing
•    Trouble sleeping due to coughing or wheezing

How To Prevent Cold Weather Asthma

How To Prevent Cold Weather Asthma_Cold Induced Asthma

When it comes to chronic conditions like asthma, preparation leads to prevention. Meet your doctor or allergist before the winter arrives and discuss what measures you can take to prevent an attack. Your allergist will prescribe medications that are suited for your condition and provide you with specific instructions for using them. Asthma medications fall broadly into two categories: quick-relief and long-term controller medications.

Medications

  • Long-Term Controller Medications: As the name suggests, these medications are taken daily to keep asthma under control and prevent inflammation in the airways. They are usually prescribed to people who have frequent asthma symptoms. Controller medications help manage asthma and allow you to lead a normal life without worrying about sudden attacks.
  • Quick-Relief Medications: These medications are used to quickly relax and open the airways and relieve symptoms during an asthma flare-up. They are sometimes also used before exercise. Known as bronchodilators, these medications are administered by an inhaler or a nebulizer machine and are used mostly during emergencies or unexpected attacks.

Preventive Steps You Can Take

Preventive Steps You Can Take_Cold Induced Asthma

Asthma is not a curable condition and the best a person with asthma can do is work towards managing it as effectively as possible. In the case of asthma that is triggered by cold weather, you can take a few simple steps to ensure that the weather does not come in the way of your plans. Here are a few precautions to note:

  • Always be prepared when you’re stepping out during winter or if the temperature drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Carry your prescribed reliever medication with you wherever you go.
  • If you know that you’re going to step out, take your reliever medication 10 – 15 minutes before exposure to cold air. It will help keep your airways open and compensate for the sudden change in temperature.
  • Make sure you’re wearing clothes that insulate you from the cold. Wear gloves, a scarf, and a hat. Research has shown that covering your mouth and nose with a mask can help reduce the risk of an asthma attack.3
  • Your nose is designed to warm and humidify the air before it enters your lungs. So avoid breathing through your mouth and always breathe in through your nose.
  • Exercising outdoors when the temperature is low increases your risk of exercise-induced asthma. Workout indoors or go to a gym where the temperature is regulated.
  • Keep yourself well hydrated so that your airways remain moist and don’t go dry because of the cold air. If possible, try and avoid meeting anyone who you know has a cold or the flu.

Cold Weather Asthma Prevention Tips For Children

Cold Weather Asthma Prevention Tips For Children_Cold Induced Asthma- Causes and Prevention

Children are more susceptible to asthma attacks as they may not be able to identify triggers or take the necessary precautions to prevent an attack. Apart from the steps mentioned above, here are a few tips you can use during winter to help children with asthma:

  • Talk to your child about cold weather being an asthma trigger and explain the importance of keeping warm in winters.
  • Show your child how to avoid triggers and how to put the right plan into action in the event of an attack.
  • Teach your child to maintain good hygiene by demonstrating the proper way to wash hands to avoid respiratory infections.
  • Discuss your child’s condition with the school nurse and keep him/her updated about the medications your child is on.
  • Make sure your child is always carrying reliever medication when stepping out.

Winters can be a difficult time for both adults and children who have asthma. While asthma is a long-term disease that cannot be cured yet, taking steps to avoid potential triggers and planning your activities will help prevent any sudden attacks. Also make sure to include foods like ginger, turmeric, and omega 3 fatty acids in your diet to benefit from their anti-inflammatory properties.

References   [ + ]

1. Asthma Triggers and Management. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
2. Giesbrecht, Gordon G., and Magdy Younes. “Exercise-and cold-induced asthma.” Canadian journal of applied physiology 20, no. 3 (1995): 300-314.
3. Schachter, E. N., Elliot Lach, and M. Lee. “The protective effect of a cold weather mask on exercised-induced asthma.” Annals of allergy 46, no. 1 (1981): 12-16.