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Cold Air, Exercise and Asthma

In winter, the pollen allergic breathe sighs of relief. Not so those who have asthma triggered by cold air, exercise or indoor allergens. But winter need not be a cruel season for the lungs.

How cold air affects asthma

A winter wind whips your face. What do you do? Probably squint and tear up because cold air dries out and irritates the delicate tissue of the eyes. Asthmatics can have a similar reaction in their lungs, one that literally takes their breath away. Cold, dry air irritates hypersensitive lungs that have become inflamed, causing bronchospasm. The muscles around the irritated bronchial tubes constrict and become even more narrow, making it difficult to breathe. An increase of mucus in the lungs also limits breathing, resulting in wheezing, coughing and tightness in the chest.

Dr. Mark Greenwald, vice president of the Asthma Society of Canada, notes that even non-asthmatics can feel their breath catch in a frosty gust on extremely cold, dry days. “That’s what the asthmatic feels, but it’s triggered much easier and by air that’s not as cold.” He reminds, however, that with proper treatment, the asthmatic should be able to do everything the non-asthmatic can. “Be very aggressive with your asthma control,” he says.

What should you do about cold air and asthma?

Exercise and asthma

Greenwald points out that about 20 per cent of the Canadian Olympic team has asthma, and if they can handle strenuous workouts, you can exercise, too! It’s a question again of managing your asthma medication plan.

Be aware that if you have Exercise Induced Asthma (EIA), it can flare during the winter (even if controlled the rest of the year). This is due to the fact that when people exercise, they often breathe through their mouths rather than noses. When the air is cold and not warmed in the nose, that can irritate sensitive lungs. In a 2001 study, British researchers found that 70 per cent of asthma patients had symptoms triggered by a combination of cold air and exercise.

What should you do about exercise and asthma?

Indoor allergens and asthma

Studies in recent years have found that the air quality [1] inside the average home is up to five times worse than that outside. And North Americans spend about 90 per cent of their time indoors during the winter.

Besides increasing exposure to asthma triggers such as chemicals and fumes from cleaning products, a building sealed tightly against the cold also provides an ideal environment for mould and dust mites. Add pet dander or cigarette smoke and asthma problems are compounded.

What should you do about indoor allergens and asthma?

Cold and Flu – Added Aggravation for Asthma

“Asthmatics are more reactive to colds,” Greenwald says. In a study of students in Denver, published in 2004, researchers found that an upper respiratory infection doubled the likelihood that a child would have a full-blown asthma attack, and quadrupled the chance of a general increase in symptoms. Statistics Canada research shows colds [2] and chest infections are the most common trigger for more than 80 per cent of asthmatics.

What should you do about colds and flu and asthma?

Be In Control of Your Asthma

If your asthma is under control, you should not be experiencing symptoms – even on the coldest days or when exercising vigorously. Yet, about 60 per cent of asthmatics in Canada are not managing their disease well. Greenwald admonishes: “Everybody still relies on emergency treatment, and that’s not the way to go.”

So if you know the cold causes you grief, speak to your doctor, amend your asthma action plan, and breathe easy.

15 ways to clean up your home’s air [3]
The dangers of third-hand smoke [4]
5 plants that clean your home’s air [5]

Sources: Statistics Canada: National Population Health Survey; The Asthma Society of Canada, www.asthma.ca [6]; the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, www.aafa.org [7]; the National Jewish Medical and Research Center, www.nationaljewish.org [8]. the American Lung Assocation, www.lungusa.org [9]; the Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.com [10]; and www.kidshealth.org [11]. Facts reviewed by Dr. Mark Greenwald.

First published in Allergic Living magazine. © 2005 Copyright AGW Publishing Inc.

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