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Is the cold weather making my asthma worse?

Why cold weather might be harming your training copy

Has the recent cold weather triggered your asthma symptoms? If it has, you’re not alone, all sorts of weather conditions can cause your asthma symptoms to become apparent. Around 1 in 12 people have asthma, a condition which is more common in women than men amongst the adult population. Here to explain the implications asthma could have on your training, particularly in the colder months, is Freeletics Health Specialist Leanne Edermaniger.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a common inflammatory respiratory condition affecting 300 million people worldwide. It affects your airways, making them more sensitive to substances and conditions they don’t like, such as:

  • Dust Mites
  • Animal Fur
  • Smoke
  • Cold air
  • Exercise
  • Infections

If the airways detect a situation they are not comfortable with, the breathing tubes responsible for carrying air in and out of the lungs become inflamed and narrow. Unfortunately, there is no cure for asthma, making it a long-term condition, especially if it begins during adulthood. What happens to the airways when they come into contact with an asthma trigger?

  • The airways become narrow and the muscles around the walls of the airways tighten
  • The lining of the airways becomes inflamed and starts to swell
  • The airways can narrow further with the presence of sticky mucus

Cold Weather

The cold weather in the winter months is a culprit for triggering asthma symptoms in many people. When cold or damp air enters the airways, it can cause the airways to go into spasm, inducing symptoms like:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath

In the lining of the airways is a single layer of cells called the epithelium which serves to keep the lining moist and protects the airways. Some research has shown that the cooling and drying of the respiratory epithelium could be responsible for inflammation within the airways, particularly in those with asthma. In one study carried out in Finland including 7330 participants, 6% of men and 7% of women felt their asthma was worse on exposure to cold weather.

So, how can you manage your asthma in the cold weather?

  • Speak to your doctor about your medication, you may need to alter it to combat the cold air.
  • When you go out, stick on a buff to cover your mouth and nose. Make sure you breathe through your nose to warm the air before it reaches your airways.
  • Keep your medication close by. If you can, keep it close to your body to keep it warm as this will help its distribution in your respiratory system.

Exercise

Exercise can also trigger asthma symptoms, meaning that exercising in the cold can be a double-whammy for your respiratory system. The problem is that, when we exercise, we tend to breathe through our mouths rather than our nose. When we breathe through our nose, the air is warmed and moistened before it reaches our airways. Therefore, when we breathe through our nose during exercise, the air is colder and drier. So, asthmatics, whose airways are more sensitive to changes in the air temperature and humidity, will find their airways will become irritated, inflamed and narrow causing the associated asthma symptoms.

In some individuals, their symptoms of asthma may only become apparent when they exercise, often known as exercise-induced asthma. The symptoms are the same as the more ‘traditional’ forms of asthma, but they are their most intense following exercise and should slowly improve.

The cold air can also cause airway changes in individuals who don’t have asthma. Perhaps surprisingly, a disproportionately large proportion of endurance athletes such as skiers, swimmers and long-distance runners have asthma, due to the repeated cooling and drying of air in the airways.

If your exercise does trigger your asthma symptoms, you shouldn’t just give up. If you look after yourself and take your medication as instructed you should be able to control the condition and still enjoy exercise. Speak to your doctor to see if your dose needs adjusting. Exercise can help to improve the health and stamina of your lungs as well as boosting your immune system, so you should be able to fight off infections like coughs and colds. There are many famous athletes who have asthma, so you shouldn’t let it stop you doing the things you love.

Although asthma can affect the way you breathe and it may be triggered by factors such as the cold weather and exercise, looking after your body will allow you to carry on doing the things you enjoy.

References

  • D’ Amato, M et al. (2018). The Impact of Cold on the Respiratory Tract and its Consequences to Respiratory Health. Clinical and Translational Allergy: 8: (20).
  • Giesbrecht, G, G and Younes, M. (1995). Exercise and Cold-Induced Asthma. Can J Appl Physiol: 20(3), pp 3001-14.
  • Hyrkäs-Palmu, H et al. (2018). Cold Weather Increases Respiratory Symptoms and Functional Disability Especially Among Patients with Asthma and Allergic Rhinitis. Scientific Reports: 8.
  • Lambrecht, B, N and Hammad, H. (2015). The Immunology of Asthma. Nature Immunology: 16(1), pp 45-56.