Has cold, winter wind ever made you cough? While the sensation may be harsh, most people are on their way with no lasting issues after a few moments.
But when you have asthma, and about 25 million Americans do, you may need medical help to get breathing right again.
Wyncel Chan, MD, Riley Pediatrics pediatrician in Bedford, Indiana, says:
“Cold air is drier and evaporates faster than warm air, causing swelling and irritation in the lungs. Cold air also triggers histamines, which causes wheezing and mucus production. This causes more irritation, and the increased mucus traps in viruses more, which can cause long-term infections. It’s why a person with asthma could potentially have more infections than someone without asthma.”
Dr. Chan describes asthma as a swelling of the airways, which causes narrowing of the paths air needs to travel through, especially the deeper you go into the lungs. That makes it harder for the oxygen to travel to the tiny pathways that bring oxygen to your blood.
When a person with asthma breaths in cold air, or is exposed to another trigger like cigarette smoke, the swelling increases and impedes a person’s ability to breath.
“And that is why sometimes it feels like things get stuck and you have to cough a little bit more, or it hurts—it’s because those little particles of oxygen that are trying to make their way through,” she says.
One way to reduce the risk of triggering your asthma is to stay out of the cold, and to wear a mask or a scarf over your mouth and nose if you are out in cold temperatures. That will keep the air you’re breathing warmer and less dry.
And when an asthmatic reaction is triggered, there are options to help you breath.
Dr. Chan says people with mild/intermittent asthma have symptoms less than twice a week and can use a rescue inhaler to open their airways immediately.
“Rescue inhalers aren’t for daily use,” says Dr. Chan. “And if you do need it daily, you should definitely talk to your provider to see if you need more help.”
Dr. Chan says that when parents say their child is coughing every night, or they’re using their rescue inhaler multiple times a week, or even multiple times a day—that’s a sign they may need a controller medication.
“This is an inhaled steroid medication used every day to help decrease inflammation at baseline. And you would use your rescue inhaler in conjunction as well, for those major flare-ups,” Dr. Chan explains.
These medications are essential for long-term health when you have asthma. If you need a controller medication and don’t use it, your lungs can be irritated constantly which may worsen your asthma symptoms in the long run.
Asthma isn’t curable, but it doesn’t have to be scary. Your doctor is your partner in making sure you have what you need, so make sure to ask questions and tell them about your concerns.
“And don’t be afraid to ask for an asthma action plan, which is where we as providers put it plain and simple when to use the inhaler or a medication, how often to use it, when to call the doctor and when to go to the hospital,” says Dr. Chan. “That should be in everybody’s asthma regiment.”