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12 steps to managing winter asthma
What is winter asthma?
Asthma during the winter months can be difficult. Winter asthma, or cold-induced asthma, can be worse than normal, with an increased number of attacks and elevated symptoms.
Asthma attacks occur when people are exposed to triggers that cause the body to initiate a protective response. For many people, cold, dry air is a trigger. Breathing in the cold winter air, the air passages and lungs become irritated and swell, secreting a thick mucus to protect themselves. Swollen airways become narrower, which combined with the mucus, restrict airflow and make breathing especially difficult. The mucus limits oxygen absorption, resulting in fatigue, and the lungs release histamines that cause wheezing.
If this wasn't bad enough, mucus lining the nasal passages thickens as well, causing congestion. To top it all off, winter months tend to coincide with flu season. Upper respiratory infections further exacerbate asthma symptoms.
So what's a person to do?
Common sense indicates maybe spending more time indoors is the answer. But time indoors means more time around indoor asthma triggers such pet dander, dust, mold, and smoke from fireplaces.
Managing cold-induced asthma in the winter
Here are some steps asthma sufferers can take to protect themselves from winter asthma.
- Get a flu shot.
Getting a flu shot early in the season can help prevent respiratory illness throughout the winter months. Talk to a doctor about whether a pneumonia vaccine might also be beneficial.
- Exercise indoors.
While outside exercise has its perks, for asthma sufferers, the heavy breathing of cold and dry air will only increase the likelihood of asthma attacks. Indoor gyms, fitness classes, swimming, and even walking laps in a mall are better options.
- Wear a scarf.
Staying warm in general will help protect against respiratory infections, but wearing a scarf will protect airways by warming up the air you breathe.
- Take indoor breaks.
If participating in outdoor activities, take frequent breaks indoors to warm up.
- Breathe through the nose.
Breathing through your nose when outdoors will naturally warm air and filter out pollutants and allergens.
- Drink warm liquids.
Not only will tea, hot chocolate, coffee and other liquids warm you up, but the water will also thin out mucus and make it easier to breathe.
- Maintain a clean living environment.
Dusting and vacuuming often can keep dander and other allergen triggers to a minimum. Replacing air filters and purchasing an air purifier will also help.
- Eliminate triggers.
Fix drafty windows. Use dust mite proof, hypoallergenic mattress protectors. Keep pets out of sleeping spaces. Use space heaters instead of a smoky fireplaces. Know the primary triggers for asthma attacks and take steps to rectify them.
- Buy a humidifier.
During the winter, indoor air becomes dry too, and irritates nasal and lung passages just like being outside. A humidifier will put moisture back into the air. However, take extra care to be sure the water reservoirs and filters are mold-free.
- Quit smoking.
If there was ever a time to quit smoking, the winter months are it. Smoking destroys even healthy lungs and will do asthma sufferers no favors.
- Stay well.
Avoid getting sick by practicing personal hygiene and social distancing from people with colds or the flu.
- Take asthma medications.
Take all medications as prescribed, even if symptoms disappear. Inhaled steroid medications will keep inflammation at bay, nasal sprays will moisten nasal passages, and rescue inhalers will widen airways during asthma attacks.
Even though asthma doesn't hibernate, it doesn't mean you have to. With preparation and mindfulness, you can enjoy the winter months and breathe easy.