This chronic disease causes the lung’s airways to become inflamed and narrowed, making it difficult to breathe. And while asthma can be triggered year-round by allergens such as pets, dust or pollen, flare-ups can also come from non-allergic triggers such as the frigid winter air.
“Many asthmatics report sudden onset of shortness of breath with very cold air,” allergist and immunologist Dr. Feryal Hajee, who is president of Metropolitan Asthma & Allergy in New Jersey, tells Yahoo Life. “The temperature gradient when cold air is inhaled into the warm airway and lungs is thought to be what triggers bronchospasms or sudden muscle constriction that surrounds the airway.”
The cold air is especially problematic for those who suffer from a type of asthma called exercised-induced bronchoconstriction, or EIB. Exercising makes you breathe faster and deeper and typically, through your mouth. For someone with EIB, this type of breathing in cold temperatures outside can trigger an asthma attack.
“When you breathe through your mouth, the cold air can’t be warmed by your nose first before moving to your lungs,” Melanie Carver, chief mission officer of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America tells Yahoo Life. “Exercises that expose you to cold, dry air like running outside, skiing, or football, are more likely to cause asthma symptoms than exercise involving warm and humid air, such as swimming in indoor pools, playing indoor volleyball, or going to an indoor gym.”
The signs of an asthma attack — and how to prevent them
The most common signs and symptoms of an asthma attack include coughing, shortness of breath, feeling winded, a tightening in the chest, and a wheezing that makes a high-pitched whistling sound when you exhale. But Carver says it’s important to remember, “Not everyone with asthma has the same symptoms. You may only have one symptom, or you may have many symptoms.”
The good news is that these symptoms are reversible with the right steps and medications. “The best initial treatment is a short-acting bronchodilator, such as albuterol, and removing yourself from the trigger as best as possible,” Dr. Brian Smart, an allergist and immunologist with Duly Health and Care tells Yahoo Life. “The gold standard for asthma, for many years, is inhaled steroids. These are usually reliable, safe, and effective.”
Smart says that other prescription medications include leukotriene antagonists, such as montelukast (Singulair), and biologics, such as omalizumab (Xolair).
Along with taking the appropriate medications, Carver suggests wearing a scarf or mask over your mouth and nose when you’re outdoors in the cold temperatures, which will warm and humidify the air you’re breathing.
When indoors, Carver suggests checking your home’s humidity levels. Too little humidity dries out your nasal passages and can also affect your breathing. Too much can lead to the growth of asthma triggers, such as mold and dust mites. “The optimal range for relative humidity is 35 to 50 percent,” says Carver. “If your home’s furnace doesn’t have a built-in option for measuring humidity, you can get a hygrometer from hardware stores.”
When to call the doctor
If you experience asthma symptoms at least two or three times a week or if you wake up at night more than twice a month because of those symptoms, then it’s time to visit your health care provider or an asthma specialist. The appointment will likely include a clinical history and a physical, along with some tests.
“The most commonly-used test, by asthma experts, is spirometry,” says Smart. “This is the test in which someone breathes forcefully into a machine. This can be done in-office or, more formally, as a pulmonary function test, often in a hospital setting.”
As with any medical condition, seeking treatment sooner rather than later is key. “If your asthma is not well-controlled, your daily activities may be limited,” Carver warns. “You may miss work or school. You may increase your chances of having complications from a respiratory infection. And you may be at greater risk for going to the emergency room, staying in the hospital, or even dying from asthma.”
Adds Carver: “Everyone’s asthma is different, so you and your doctor need to create an asthma treatment plan just for you. This plan will include an asthma action plan that will have information about your asthma triggers and instructions for taking your medicines.”
As Carver puts it: “Although we cannot cure asthma, we can control it.”
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