So you can breathe easier in winter

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November 11, 2022
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November 11, 2022 – Karen Ruckert is not looking forward to winter. The 69-year-old in Far Rockaway, NY, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that makes breathing difficult, especially when walking at the best of times. But the cold air makes things worse.

“The cold takes my breath away – in the truest sense of the word,” says Ruckert.

Nava Myers, a 31-year-old dental hygienist, has a similar problem. She has asthma. In cold weather, their lungs contract. “When I walk, I have to stop, catch my breath and gasp. I feel the tightness and constriction as soon as I walk out the door.”

People with respiratory conditions (such as asthma, COPD, sinusitis or allergies) or who may be dealing with the long-term effects of COVID-19 often find it difficult to breathe in colder temperatures.

jodi hunter, a respiratory therapist at Ascension SE Wisconsin Hospital,

says that the low temperature and low humidity affect the respiratory system.

“Cold, dry air irritates the lungs and causes the muscles around the airways to contract, actually narrowing the airways,” she says. The technical term for the condition is bronchospasm.

The narrow airways mean less air can enter and exit. Also, mucus in the airways tends to dry out, and the narrower airways make it harder to get rid of. The mucus can therefore clog the airways.

“This can cause shortness of breath, a feeling of tightness or tightness, sometimes a burning sensation in the chest, and often wheezing or coughing,” says Jaeger.

Even healthy people who exercise rigorously in very cold temperatures can put themselves at risk of these symptoms.

Fortunately, there are many simple self-care measures to reduce risk and manage symptoms.

Cover your face

Jaeger advises people to dress warmly and cover their face in cold weather when going outside.

“In particular, it’s extremely important to cover your mouth and nose with a scarf or cold-weather face mask — not a flimsy surgical ‘COVID-like’ mask — or a neck gaiter that extends over the face,” says Jaeger

This helps warm the air around your nose and also retains some moisture. While some people find it annoying if their scarf gets damp, you’re breathing moisture instead of dry, cold air.

Rucker covers her face when walking in cold weather, but leaves a small area around her nose slightly uncovered because her glasses fog up so she can’t see where she’s walking.

Myers wraps her neck area in a “circle scarf.” She also wraps her ears. “I can even feel the cold in my ears, so I wear a really good, thick scarf that covers my neck, mouth, nose and ears.”

Breathe through your nose

Breathing through your nose is better than breathing through your mouth because the nose is a “better humidifier than the mouth,” says Jaeger. “Combining nasal breathing with a face covering should go a long way in preventing chest tightness, shortness of breath, and cold-induced bronchospasm.”

Avoid rigorous outdoor exercise in very cold weather

Exercising makes breathing harder because when you exercise, you increase the amount of air you breathe compared to when you’re resting, Jaeger explains. “This causes the tightness and the burning sensation and can eventually lead to wheezing.”

Even in people without lung disease, strenuous outdoor exercise in extremely cold weather — especially for more than 30 minutes — can trigger symptoms that can last up to 24 hours.

If you love really vigorous outdoor exercise like running, make sure you’re dressed appropriately and stay hydrated. And consider reducing either the intensity or time of your workout — or both, Jaeger advises.

Both Ruckers and Myers avoid walking outdoors in cold weather as much as possible.

“And when I’m going outside in the cold, when I’m trying to go for a walk with my friends, I have to stop and catch my breath,” says Myers.

Myers cannot walk and talk at the same time in cold weather. “I might try to tell a story, but eventually I have to stop, catch my breath and finish the story when I get home.”

Stay hydrated

The air, both outside and inside, is drier in cold weather, Jaeger notes. “Drinking plenty of fluids helps the body stay hydrated, so when you go outside your lungs are more protected and your phlegm is less thick and less likely to get stuck.” She also suggests using lotion and lip balm , so that skin and lips do not dry out.

She recommends hot or warm herbal tea or water with lemon and raw honey. A bonus is that certain teas, like peppermint or chamomile, can also soothe the airways.

Take care of your indoor environment too

In the winter, people spend more time indoors, and there are things you can do to make your indoor environment more friendly to respiratory health. For example, take extra care to keep your home clean and free of dust and other allergens that can affect breathing.

Jaeger recommends using a humidifier to compensate for the dryness in the air that can often result from the use of radiators.

“That way you build up hydration in your body at home so that when you go outside you’re not dehydrated,” she says.

Make sure the humidifier is cleaned regularly to keep bacteria and mold from building up and becoming airborne, she warns. Follow package directions or use vinegar and water to clean.

Some portable humidifiers can be used with small, disposable water bottles. They can be taken in the car, brought to the office or used when traveling. Using a disposable bottle prevents bacteria and mold from forming.

Ruckert places a pot of water on the radiator. As the water evaporates, the air becomes more humid.

Air quality aside, you can help your breathing by using essential oils like eucalyptus, peppermint, and tea tree. “You can rub it on yourself — somewhere you can smell it — or put it on a cotton ball by your pillow,” says Jaeger.

Medicines to help breathing

People with respiratory conditions typically take medication to manage their conditions. Some are used regularly, while others are “rescue” drugs, used only when symptoms appear.

“Take your prescribed rescue inhaler before you expose yourself to the cold air,” advises Jaeger. Bring the medication with you in case you need it outdoors.

Ideally, people with known respiratory conditions should have an action plan with their doctor, says Jaeger. Most people with these conditions can measure the amount of air expelled from the lungs with a device called a peak flow meter. “You should know when your medication may need adjustments and when to contact your provider.”

If you’ve never had breathing problems and the problem is new to you, you should take it seriously, especially when simple self-care measures aren’t working, she emphasizes. “And if you have severe shortness of breath or wheezing and can’t finish your sentences, you need to see a doctor right away.”

Myers takes different types of inhalers, some consistently and others as needed. “I feel like they don’t make much of a difference in cold weather, and their cost is exorbitant, so I just avoid going out in the winter,” she says.



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