What to Do When Winter Takes Your Breath Away

People suffering from lung disease have it bad when it's cold

You know it’s cold when one step outside takes your breath away — literally. But for those with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other lung disease, the bitter cold can mean more trouble than a quick gasp for air.

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Pulmonologist Kathrin Nicolacakis, MD, explains why and what you can do about it.

Q: Why do cold temperatures make it harder to breathe?

Dr. Nicolacakis: “Cold air can trigger bronchospasm, a constriction in your airways. This makes it harder for air to get in and out of your lungs. But it’s not just the cold that causes irritation. It’s the extreme change in temperature and humidity—going from warm, moister air inside to cold, drier air outside, for example.”

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Q: Is the bitter cold worse than sweltering heat for people with lung disease?

Dr. Nicolacakis: “Not necessarily. It’s very individual—and it can change. It certainly isn’t uncommon for people with lung disease to experience shortness of breath and wheezing when going outside during winter months. But that doesn’t mean summer months are without challenges. High heat and humidity can trigger breathlessness too. So can high pollen counts.”

Q: How can people with lung disease prevent breathing problems during cold weather?

Dr. Nicolacakis: “I tell my patients to cover their nose and mouth with a scarf before going outside. The scarf can trap moisture, so it not only warms but also humidifies the air they breathe. If they’re going outdoors for a while, especially to exercise, they may want to pretreat themselves with their rescue medication, which they should always have on hand.”

Q: Is there anything else people with lung disease should do to stay healthy this winter?

Dr. Nicolacakis: “Get a flu shot. Influenza is bad, but it’s especially bad—even life-threatening—for those with chronic lung disease.”

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