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Asthma during the winter

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One significant trigger that can affect asthmatics is the weather, especially during the winter months. Not only does the cool air make it harder for you to breath but also the level of viruses, such as the common cold and flu, are much higher. Here we look at asthma that is induced by the cold weather, how to prevent symptoms from occurring and how to treat an attack, should it materialise.

The Key Points: Combatting Asthma in Winter

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  • A survey by Asthma UK states that approximately 75% of asthmatics said that the cold air triggers their symptoms, as well as a swift change in temperature.
  • The cold dry air causes the airways to inflame and your throat to become sore. This is a common symptom that affects asthmatics.
  • Another cause is common colds and flu viruses that exacerbate symptoms and can leave a lingering cough.
  • The indoors can also be problematic with air circulation, smoke from fires and various allergies.
  • Carrying an emergency inhaler is essential during the winter months.
  • You can book an appointment for a free flu vaccination on the NHS to prevent viruses.
  • Recognise your triggers and combat them effectively.
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Other Takeaways

Damp weather and thunderstorms can all prompt asthmatic symptoms, leading to many issues during the winter months. For example, the damp encourages mould, which is another trigger of the condition. Symptoms can revolve around the throat including wheezy and hoarseness, which differentiates from a common cold. So how can you combat the winter months if it triggers asthmatic symptoms?

How does the cold weather trigger asthma?

The airways of an asthmatic are very sensitive so it shouldn't come as a surprise that the majority of sufferers experience difficulty during the colder months. The typical symptoms include wheeziness, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. This can then develop into a lingering cough.

Winter-induced asthma can feel like a no-win situation. On the one hand, the coldness is irritating the airways. On the other hand, the air inside is perfect for harbouring viruses, often affecting the nose and throat.

  • Outside - Asthma causes your airways to become inflamed and therefore narrower, reducing the amount of air flowing through. This causes shortness of breath and wheeziness.
  • Inside – The circulated air spreads viruses and prompts allergies such as dust mites, pet dander and mould to surface, and therefore symptoms of asthma.

Mucus

Mucus is associated with the cold weather as symptoms of the common cold or flu, however, we produce mucus all year round as a protective layer around the airways. During the winter, we produce even more as a way to combat the cold weather, which can be thicker. This allows viruses to cling to our bodies and these can trigger symptoms of asthma, as well as making the airways narrower and therefore harder for you to breathe.

Winter viruses (the common cold and flu)

Many asthmatics find that they have a particularly nasty cough that is exacerbated by the common cold. This may linger for a time after the rest of the virus has cleared.

Colds are often unavoidable during the winter, especially when transferring your body from hot air-circulated areas to the cooler outdoors. With more sensitive airways, asthmatics are more susceptible to viruses.

Exercising outside with asthma

Your breathing fastens when exercising to increase blood flow to the body. To help increase the flow in both asthmatics and non-asthmatics, your blood vessels in the nose are used to warm up the air you're breathing in. During the winter, these blood vessels don't warm up quickly enough, and for asthmatics, this can prompt some significant changes in your breathing.

In terms of your mouth, due to the air being dry, your airways struggle to transport enough air around the body. As your breathing quickens when exercising in the cold, your breath cannot warm up quickly enough causing the airways to become inflamed as it deals with the shock of cold air.

The dry air

You will often feel the cold air making your airways feel dry and hoarse. For an asthmatic, these symptoms can be moderate to severe, sometimes causing an asthma attack.

The symptoms of asthma relating to the cold air may be one or both of these factors:

  • The fluid in the airways evaporating at a speed that it cannot recover, similar to exercising in the cold.
  • Your airways producing histamine in confusion of an allergic reaction.

Indoor air circulation

One of the most common causes of cold and flu viruses is the circulated air in our homes and workplaces. This can also take hold of your allergies to prompt asthma symptoms. Allergies include pets, dust, and mould.

This is also combined with your body not having a regulated warm temperature. It moves from central-heated areas often at a high temperature then back out in the cold; this allows viruses to spread.

Symptoms of asthma during the winter

Symptoms during the winter months can be more difficult to recognise, as the cold can be a cause in its own right. If you've fallen ill, you may find your asthma symptoms becoming more prevalent, especially the symptoms related to the throat and chest.

  • Runny nose
  • A blocked nose
  • Sneezing
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Sore throat and mouth
  • Sore eyes

How to prevent asthma during cold weather

The cold weather is somewhat unavoidable, however, it is possible for you to prepare for the cooler months to limit your chances of experiencing an asthma attack.

  • Stay prepared with inhalers – A reliever inhaler is a good precaution and should be carried everywhere, as you never know when symptoms may arise. During the winter, you may find that you need to take a preventer inhaler that you don't usually need to do in the warmer months. Make sure these are in date.
  • Do you need an action plan – You can do this with your doctor when ordering your inhalers. Based on your symptoms in the past, they can decide if you need a daily treatment or just a watchful eye.
  • Keep drinking – We don't necessarily mean hot drinks, as these can sometimes inflame your throat further, especially if you have an infection from a cold virus. But cool and warm water throughout the day can reduce the excess mucus that has built up in the airways.
  • Take precautions to avoid sickness – It is often impossible to avoid cold and flu viruses, especially in the workplace where the air is so confined. However, there are ways to minimise the chances including having cold remedies ready, enquiring about a more efficient air con system to your peers and not overworking yourself.
  • Reduce the chances of experiencing allergy-induced asthma – Using similar tactics to the summer months in terms of pollen allergy, you can reduce your chances of experiencing allergy-induced asthma by keeping your home clean (vacuuming and washing fabrics, for example).
  • Do you need a flu vaccine – Asthmatics are offered a free vaccination against flu during the winter months. Whilst this vaccine is not always 100% guaranteed, it is often better than chancing the wrath of the flu virus.
  • Exercising indoors – Whether this is the gym or a workout DVD, transfer your routine indoors until the weather warms. This will not only avoid asthma attacks whilst exercising, but limits the exposure of your throat and airways to the cold, which can prompt common cold and flu viruses.
  • Keep wrapped up – Whether it's 10 minutes or for hours at a time, keep wrapped up with many layers. This includes protecting your mouth and throat with a scarf.
  • Tidying – If your asthma triggers include allergies such as dust mites and pet dander, keeping your home ventilated when possible and vacuumed can reduce allergy-induced symptoms.
  • Keep your house dry and do not overheat – It can be tempting to turn up the heating, but this encourages dust mites, mould and the contrast of hot and cold on your airways provokes symptoms.
  • Avoiding obvious triggers – This includes wood-burning fires and certain animals if you're allergic. If the weather is going to be particularly cold, keep wrapped up with your mouth covered and stay inside when possible.

Other small but effective prevention tactics include washing your hands to limit germs and avoiding contact with sick people when possible.

Many of these prevention techniques cannot be avoided 100% of the time, and ultimately the number of viruses can make falling ill somewhat inevitable. However, it is still worth taking precautions to at least reduce the chances.

Stopping an asthma attack in the cold weather

Keeping your nose and mouth covered during cold weather can prevent an attack. This can also help you to avoid colds and flu bugs and is especially essential if you enjoy jogging outdoors. It might be worth altering your exercise regime for cooler months for the time being. Whilst the cold can aggravate your asthma, it tends to be manageable for most. If you believe you have severe asthma, where walking briskly outdoors can trigger an attack, it is important to visit your doctor.

  • Stay seated for optimum airflow to the lungs.
  • Use your reliever inhaler as instructed.
  • You can use this with a spacer.
  • If there's no improvement after a few minutes, use the inhaler again.
  • If there is again no improvement, phone an ambulance to help.

Remember to use your inhaler if you feel the symptoms occurring, and it is essential to use your reliever inhaler BEFORE exercise. This can take between 10-20 minutes to take full effect.

Treating winter-induced asthma

Asthma symptoms present due to the cold should be treated in the same way by using inhalers when symptoms appear. If you don't have a reliever inhaler (such as Ventolin) or hardly use one, you may find yourself needing it more until the temperature rises. Other treatments are dependant on your triggers. For example, allergies may require the appropriate antihistamines.

  • Reliever inhaler (on your person at all times)
  • Antihistamines for allergies
  • Cold and flu medicine to reduce associated symptoms
  • Cool and warm drinks to reduce mucus build-up
  • Nasal sprays to keep the airways clear
  • Warm clothes

Never delay visiting your doctor if you're finding your asthma (or any other respiratory condition) unmanageable. Often asthma attacks aren't out of the blue, but you've noticed symptoms previously. It is vital during the winter to have a supply of effective inhalers, whether this is preventers, relievers or both.

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Sources

How to treat asthma triggered by cold weather. Healthline.com. Retrieved December 14, 2017, from https://www.healthline.com/health/asthma/cold-induced-asthma#1
What you can do for winter asthma and allergies. Verywell.com. Retrieved December 14, 2017, from https://www.verywell.com/winter-allergic-asthma-challenges-200559
Asthma UK – Weather. Asthma.org.uk. Retrieved December 14, 2017, from https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/triggers/weather/
Winter Asthma. Webmd.com. Retrieved December 14, 2017, from https://www.webmd.com/asthma/features/winter-asthma#1
How to treat asthma triggered by cold weather. Healthline.com. Retrieved December 14, 2017, from https://www.healthline.com/health/asthma/cold-induced-asthma#1
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