November 11, 2022 – Karen Ruckert is not looking forward to winter. The 69-year-old in Far Rockaway, New York, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which makes breathing difficult at the best of times, especially while walking. But the cold air makes everything worse.
“The cold takes my breath away—literally,” Ruckert says.
Nava Myers, a 31-year-old dental hygienist, had a similar problem. She has asthma. In cold weather, her lungs constrict. “If I’m walking, I have to stop, catch my breath, and whistle. I feel tight and convulsive as soon as I walk out the door.”
People with respiratory disorders (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 cold temperatures.
jodi jaeger Respiratory Therapist at Ascension SE Wisconsin Hospital,
He says that low temperatures and low humidity affect the airways.
“Cold, dry air irritates the lungs, causing the muscles around the airways to contract so that the airways actually narrow,” she says. The technical term for the disorder is bronchospasm.
Narrow airways mean there is less room for air to get in and out. Also, the mucus inside the airways tends to dry out and the narrowing of the airways makes it more difficult to get rid of. So mucus can block the airways.
“This can lead to shortness of breath, a feeling of tightness or constriction, 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 for these symptoms.
Fortunately, there are many simple self-care measures to reduce risk and manage symptoms.
cover your face
Jaeger advises people to wear warm clothes and cover their faces in cold weather when they go outside.
“In particular, it is very important to cover your mouth and nose with a cap or face mask in cold weather — not a thin surgical COVID mask — or a neck slit that appears on the face,” says Jaeger.
This helps warm the air around the nose and also retains some moisture. Although some people find it annoying when their scarf gets damp, you’re inhaling the moisture rather than the cold, dry air.
Ruckert covers her face when she walks in cold weather but leaves a small area around her nose a bit exposed because her glasses are fumigating so she can’t see where she’s going.
Myers wraps her neck area with a “circular scarf”. She also damaged her ears. “I feel cold even in my ears, so I wear a really good scarf that covers my throat, mouth, nose and ears.”
Breathe through your nose
Breathing through the nose is better than breathing through the mouth, says Jaeger because the nose is “a better moisturizer than the mouth.” “If you combine nose breathing with a face covering, that should go a long way toward preventing chest tightness, shortness of breath, and cold-induced bronchospasm.”
Avoid strenuous exercise outdoors in very cold weather
Geiger explains that exercise makes breathing more difficult because when you exercise, you increase the amount of air you breathe, compared to when you rest. “This causes a tight, burning sensation and can eventually lead to wheezing.”
Even in people without lung disease, strenuous exercise outdoors in very cold weather — especially for more than 30 minutes — can trigger symptoms, which can last up to 24 hours.
If you like doing vigorous outdoor exercise such as running, make sure that you wear appropriate clothing and are well hydrated. And consider reducing exercise intensity or time — or both, Jaeger advises.
Both Ruckers and Myers avoid walking outdoors in cold weather as much as possible.
“If I’m out in the cold, if I’m trying to walk with my friends, I have to stop and catch my breath,” Myers says.
Myers can’t walk and talk at the same time in cold weather. “Maybe I’m trying to tell a story, but there comes a point where I have to stop, catch my breath, and finish the story when I get home.”
Jaeger notes that the air, indoors and out, is dry during cold weather. “Drinking plenty of fluids will help the body stay hydrated, so when you go out, your lungs will be better protected and the mucus will be less thick and less likely to stick.” She also suggests using lotion and lip balm so it doesn’t dry out the skin and lips.
She recommends taking hot or warm herbal tea or water with lemon and raw honey. The bonus is that some teas, such as peppermint or chamomile, can also calm the airways.
Take care of your indoor environment too
During the winter, people spend more time indoors, and there are things you can do to make your indoor environment more conducive to respiratory health. For example, be extra careful to keep your home clean and free from dust and other allergens that can affect breathing.
Jaeger recommends using a humidifier to balance out the dryness in the air that can often occur as a result of using radiators.
“This way, when you’re at home, you’re building hydration inside the body so that you don’t have a fluid deficit when you go outside.”
Be sure to clean the humidifier regularly so bacteria and mold don’t build up and be released into the air, she warns. Follow the directions on the package or use vinegar and water to clean.
Some portable humidifiers can be used with small disposable water bottles. It can be carried in the car, brought to the office, or used while traveling. Using a disposable bottle prevents bacteria and mold from accumulating.
Ruckert places a pot of water on top of the radiators. When the water evaporates, the air becomes moist.
Other than air quality, you can help your breathing with essential oils, such as eucalyptus, peppermint, and tea tree oil. “You can rub it on yourself — somewhere where you can smell it — or put it on a cotton ball next to your pillow,” says Jaeger.
People with respiratory illnesses usually take medications to control their condition. Some are used regularly, while others are “rescue” medications to use only when symptoms appear.
“Take your prescribed inhaler before exposure to cold air,” advises Jaeger. Bring medication with you in case you need it while outdoors.
Ideally, people with respiratory conditions should have a plan of action with their healthcare provider, says Jaeger. Most people with these conditions can measure the amount of air exhaled from the lungs using a device called a peak flowmeter. “You need to know when your medications may need adjusting and when to call your provider.”
She stresses that if you’ve never had trouble breathing and just developed the problem, you should take it seriously, especially if simple self-care measures don’t work. “And if you are very short of breath or wheezing and cannot complete your sentences, you need to get medical attention immediately.”
Myers takes several different types of inhalers, some on a regular basis and others as needed. “I feel like it doesn’t make a big enough difference in cold weather, and it costs a lot, so I tend to avoid going out in the winter,” she says.