Enjoying Winter Fun, Even With Asthma

M.A., Health Writer
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Oh, the weather outside is frightful, and your asthma is not delightful. You want to get out and exercise in your winter wonderland, but your asthma is always with you. Everyone is different, but it's likely that when cold weather is in the forecast, you can expect your asthma symptoms to be more severe. Air is not only more frigid but dry, as well, and colds and flu are more prevalent in winter. Here's how to manage your asthma and have fun in winter.

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It's about control

A study in a 2016 issue of Respiratory Medicine finds that when asthma is poorly controlled, cold weather-related respiratory symptoms are more likely to appear. In fact, the study says, even a "slight worsening" of asthma control worsens symptoms. Stick to your asthma action plan — being sure to make one for winter — and stay in touch with your doctor. Doing so can also help ensure you stay in better control all year 'round.

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Cold and dehydration

Cold air is considered an allergy-symptom trigger. Conditions can actually dehydrate the lungs, which may raise the possibility of a spasm. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI), exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) can occur in winter when your bronchial tubes — which let air in and out of lungs — constrict or narrow. This can cause asthma symptoms you're familiar with: coughing and wheezing, dyspnea or shortness of breath, and even chest pain.

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Nose and mouth breathing

Have you ever tried to exercise — even intensely — without opening your mouth? It's difficult, yes? Think about what happens when you breathe through your nose. Maybe you never realized that when air passes through your nose, it gets warmer and more moist, which is better for your lungs. When you're pushing your exercise intensity, you eventually breathe through your mouth. That means cold, dry air goes straight into your lower airways and lungs, which can cause asthma symptoms, says AAAAI.

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Warm up for exercise

A 2017 paper in Frontiers in Pediatrics recommends a warm-up with gentle exercises for about 15 minutes before beginning intense physical activity. It also suggests covering mouth and nose with a scarf in cold weather and trying to breathe through the nose — yes! — during the exercise. In general, asthma experts also vote for a sensible cool-down when finished. Oh, and don't forget to dress warmly enough when you're outside, preferably in layers.

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Sports choices matter

The time spent doing the activity matters, says the report. Summer sports — some of which can certainly be done indoors in winter — tend to merit kudos, because they require short bursts of activity: volleyball, gymnastics, baseball, wrestling, golf, swimming, football, and short-term track and field events. Swimming provides warmth and humidity. Consider which of these sports you can do in the winter if it gets cold where you live.

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Consider activity levels

Those sports that can most often cause EIB symptoms demand constant activity, or are most often performed when temperatures drop. The list for both includes soccer, basketball, long-distance running, ice hockey, ice-skating, and cross-country skiing. In short, low-risk sports for asthma symptoms and what's called bronchial hyperresponsiveness — defined as easily triggered bronchospasms — require physical effort of short duration.

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Happy 'medium' sports

Medium-risk sports for EIB tend to be team sports, in which aerobic and anaerobic phases alternate. Aerobic exercise involves arms and legs and uses oxygen. Anaerobic exercise involves specific muscles and doesn't require excess oxygen. Medium-risk does have short periods of high-intensity exercise, typically lower than five to eight minutes. Most doctors agree that you shouldn't dive into strenuous exercise if you're not in shape for it.

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Indoor winter triggers

Your house contains triggers no matter the season. You might have pet dander, dust mites, and even mold hanging around. If you use a fireplace or stove to heat the room, smoke is definitely a trigger risk — so even when it's tempting, keep your distance from that homey hearth. Make sure your air conditioning and heating filter is clean; in fact, be extra vigilant about cleanliness indoors in winter. Use a humidifier to add welcome moisture to indoor air.

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Take extra precautions

It's important to stick to your regular medication regime during all seasons, but especially in winter. According to the Cleveland Clinic, use of a rescue inhaler 10 to 15 minutes before exercise in cold air helps open your lungs for easier breathing. If you're going to have symptoms of EIB, you'll likely experience them after five minutes, and up to 20 minutes from when you start exercising. Stop your physical activity and your symptoms should also stop.

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Try to prevent illness

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although you're not more likely to get the flu because of asthma, a flu infection can be more serious for you, making your airway and lung inflammation worse. The CDC recommends that everyone over 6 months old with asthma gets a flu vaccine — the most important step in protection. Wash hands correctly and frequently, or use effective hand sanitizers to protect against colds, flu, and other viruses being "passed around."