Asthma and colds in the winter months

Fred Little Health Pro
  • In this entry, I would like to give some insight on the problem of colds and asthma in the winter months, and give some strategies to prevent getting colds -- a major trigger of asthma symptoms for asthma sufferers.


    Can I get a cold from being cold?

    Since we have all been children (and into adulthood), our parents warn us, "bundle up and stay warm, or you will get a cold." The term ‘common cold' is unfortunately misleading about how we get colds, and why they are more common in winter months.


    Colds do not come from cold weather, being exposed to the cold, or feeling cold. In fact, this has been studied in military recruits many years ago -- recruits exposed to wet cold did not develop colds after cold exposure.

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    Colds are caused by respiratory viruses which infect the nose and sinuses. While severe physical or emotional stress can decrease the immune system's ability to fight off infection, simple cold exposure does not put people at risk for getting a cold virus. In fact, there is a sharp increase in cold infections before the cold weather -- in early Fall. This has been called the "September Epidemic" by researchers, and is most likely due to colds being passed from child to child (and to their parents) when school goes back in session.


    The fact that, in colder climates, we spend more time indoors also contributes to the ready spread of cold viruses (see below).


    The link between colds and asthma

    Many asthma sufferers note that their asthma can lose control or exacerbate when they have a cold. Research has borne this out: 50-60% of asthma exacerbations in adults (and more in children) are caused by viral cold infections. In fact, some individuals with asthma may know they are about to get a cold because they feel ‘off' and need to use their quick-relief inhaler more frequently.


    While the detailed biologic connections between the nose/throat and lungs in asthma getting worse with a cold are not known, it is known that this is not due to infection by virus in the lungs. By and large, upper respiratory viral infections (colds) do not cause infection in the lungs despite the fact that asthma symptoms are often increased by having a cold.


    Preventing colds in the winter (and warm months)

    Cold viruses are very hearty, and can survive outside the body for hours before becoming inactive (and noninfectious). While colds can be spread from person to person by sneezing or coughing, the most common route is by direct hand contact to doorknobs, telephones, chairs, and other people, especially kids. Secretions from the nose and mouth are on our hands all the time, even if we have not just coughed or sneezed. These are easily transferred to things we touch, and then picked up by someone else, who then touches their nose or mouth.


    So, the most effective way to prevent getting a cold or spreading one to someone else is by ‘watching what you touch', and washing hands with soap and warm water. Alcohol-based hand cleaners (such as Purell) are also very effective at neutralizing viruses (and bacteria).


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    Closing thoughts

    The winter months are prime months for catching a cold, and therefore for worsening asthma control in individuals with asthma (but because of the cold). By knowing the link between colds and asthma, as well as how to minimize your risk of catching a cold, you will be able to take better control of your asthma.


    See also:


    Managing Asthma, One Step at a Time: Asthma Management Guide 

    'My Child Has Asthma: Now What?': Our Childhood Asthma Guide

    Living a life without Asthma Limitations: Our Adult Asthma Guide 

Published On: February 11, 2008