Frigid air can take anyone’s breath away, but it leaves people with asthma especially breathless. Winter, with its cold dry air, is peak season for asthma attacks. Going indoors can help you warm up, but it may do little to improve your symptoms. Asthma triggers also abound in weather-sealed homes.
“We shut ourselves inside the house during the winter, exposing ourselves to more allergens. Houses are so efficient now that there is not a steady flow of air so we have an increased exposure to irritants and triggers,” said Michael Benedict, MD, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati.
One common indoor allergen is mold, which thrives in damp areas like bathrooms and basements. Research finds high levels of mold worsen breathing problems in people with asthma. Mold might also contribute to the development of asthma in children.
Indoor fires are another source of breathing troubles. Smoke from a wood-burning fireplace or stove teems with tiny particles that can reach deep into your lungs.
Scented products like room sprays and candles are also tough on tight airways. As they give off a pleasant smell, these products also release harmful chemicals like toluene and benzene into the air, which can make asthma symptoms act up.
To avoid indoor asthma attacks, rid your home of dust, mold, smoke, and scents. Cover mattresses and pillows with dust mite-proof covers (and bring them with you to hotels when you travel). Set your home’s humidity at 40 to 50 percent to prevent mold growth. Turn on the exhaust fan when cooking and the bathroom fan when showering to discourage wetness buildup.
Instead of lighting a fire in the fireplace, turn up the thermostat. Don’t let anyone light up a cigarette or cigar in your home. And avoid using scented products. Whenever you visit friends or family, ask whether these allergens or irritants are in their homes.
Winter brings an influx of germs. “Cold and flu bugs are known triggers for asthma,” Benedict says. The flu can further inflame swollen airways, and having asthma puts you at higher risk for complications such as pneumonia.
Avoid germs by washing your hands with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer throughout the day, and by staying away from anyone who looks sick. Get a flu shot as early in the season as you can. If you do catch the flu, see your doctor right away for treatment to avoid complications.
Exercise is notorious for causing asthma attacks, especially when it’s chilly outside. “Any kind of vigorous exercise can be a trigger for an asthma attack, but the cold dry air of winter can be an especially potent trigger,” said David Beuther, MD, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health.
You don’t have to give up outdoor activities like skating, sledding, and walking, as long as you take a few precautions. Use your rescue inhaler about 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside to pre-open your airways. If you’re going to be outdoors for more than two to four hours, bring your inhaler with you. Do a 10- to 15-minute warm-up to get your body — and lungs — ready for exercise.
Once outdoors, cover your mouth and nose with a scarf or facemask to warm the air you breathe in. And if the cold really bothers your asthma, take your workout routine indoors. Go to a gym, or walk around the mall.
To manage your breathing throughout the winter, follow your asthma action plan. Even if you feel well, keep taking your asthma medications as your doctor prescribed. Use your plan as a guide to help you respond when your asthma does flare up.
February 08, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN