By Eric Metcalf, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD
For many people, asthma attacks may happen more often in the winter. “There are two challenges for people with asthma in the winter. One is that they spend more time inside. The other is that it’s cold outside,” says H. James Wedner, MD, an asthma expert at Washington University in St. Louis.
While you’re indoors, you breathe in asthma triggers such as mold, pet dander, dust mites, and even fires in the fireplace. When you venture out, you could have an asthma attack from inhaling the cold air. Here’s how to breathe easier during the cold months.
Learn Your Triggers
When you inhale something that triggers your asthma, your airways — the tubes in your lungs that carry air — can become tight and clogged with mucus. You may cough, wheeze, and struggle to catch your breath.
Talk to your doctor about having tests to find out what your triggers are. Once you know them, you can make some changes at home that may help:
Limit time around pets. Having a dog or cat in your home may trigger your asthma. Try to keep it out of the bedroom. Curbing allergy triggers where you sleep can make a big difference, Wedner says.
Cover bedding. If mites are a trigger, use mite-proof covers on the mattress, box springs, and pillows, he says. These help keep dust mites away overnight.
Keep the house cool and dry. Dust mites as well as mold don’t grow very well when it’s cool and dry,” Wedner says. Ways to help keep your home dry during the winter include:
- Run the fan in your bathroom when taking a bath or shower.
- Use the exhaust fan in the kitchen when cooking or using the dishwasher.
- Fix leaky pipes and windows.
The common cold and flu are both more likely to strike in the winter and can lead to asthma flare-ups. You can lower your family’s risk of these illnesses, though:
Wash your hands. This helps keep viruses from getting into your body when you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.
Stay away from people who are ill. If a coworker or friend has the cold or flu, keep your distance.
Get a flu shot. Experts suggest that most people get a flu shot each year. This helps protect you from catching the flu.
Tips to Avoid Cold Air
To protect yourself from asthma flare-ups due to chilly weather, Wedner offers these suggestions:
Cover your face. Drape a scarf across your mouth and nose, or wear a winter face mask that covers the bottom half of your face.
Exercise indoors. Work out at a gym or inside your home, or walk laps inside a mall.
Treating Winter Asthma
People with asthma not only use quick-relief meds; they often need to take medicine every day for long-term asthma control. But sometimes they make the mistake of stopping the medications when they no longer feel symptoms, Wedner says.
So, even if you haven’t had a flare-up for a long time, be sure to follow your doctor’s directions for controlling your asthma. As winter nears, make sure you have current prescriptions for all medications.
Talk to your doctor about an asthma action plan, says Daniel Jackson, MD, of the University of Wisconsin. The plan should make it clear when to take each type of medication and when to call the doctor or call for emergency medical help. Divide the plan into three categories or zones:
- How to handle your asthma when you’re feeling good and have no symptoms.
- What to do if you start to have symptoms.
- The steps to take if your symptoms are severe or you can’t control them.
- You probably won’t need to change your action plan for the winter, Jackson says. But since you may be more likely to need it during the cold months, make sure you review your plan before winter and keep it handy.
Tips for Children
As winter approaches, you can help your child have fewer asthma problems, too:
Give them some responsibility for keeping their asthma under control. This includes knowing how to avoid triggers and how to follow their action plan.
Discuss your child’s action plan with the school nurse.
Teach the importance of proper hand washing, especially during cold and flu season.