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How to keep winter asthma attacks under control

Understanding asthma triggers and taking extra precautions can help keep you wheeze-free this winter.

mom holding asthma mask over girl's faceMany people look forward to cold weather fun. But if you’re one of the 20 million Americans diagnosed with asthma, a drop in temperature can mean an increase in flare-ups.

Cold Weather Complications

Cold air can give asthmatics more than the chills, says Dr. John Villacis, an allergist and immunologist at The Austin Diagnostic Clinic. In fact, cold air is a common cause of asthma flare-ups. “When you inhale cold air, your airways constrict,” explains Dr. Villacis. “For people with asthma, this can cause symptoms such as shortness of breath, wheezing and chest tightness.”

But you don’t have to stay inside if you follow a few simple steps:

  • Exercise precautions
    Avoid exercising in cold weather if possible. If you do, make sure you use your asthma medication at least 10 to 15 minutes prior to working out, advises Dr. Villacis.
  • Bundle up
    Wear a scarf or mask over your face to warm the air before it enters your airway. Also, keeping the rest of your body warm by dressing in layers can help keep your airways warm.
  • Manage your medication
    Make sure you keep quick-relief inhalers at arm’s reach when you’re working out or playing in cold weather, and take your maintenance asthma medications daily.

 Indoor Irritants

Cold weather asthma triggers aren’t only found outside. Hunkering down in your house can also set off an attack if you don’t mitigate these possible irritants:

  • Mold, mildew and pet dander
    The more time you spend inside your home, the more important it is to eliminate allergens that can play a significant role in asthma flare-ups. “More than 70 percent of people with asthma also suffer from allergies,” says Dr. Villacis. “Mold, mildew and pet dander are commonly found around the house and can irritate bronchial passages, especially if you’re allergic to these substances.” Keep your house as clean as you can. Remove as much dust as possible, vacuum frequently and wash fabrics, such as sheets, in hot water every week. If you have pets, don’t allow them in the bedroom. Remember, whatever allergens are outside, your pets can bring them indoors.
  • Second-hand smoke
    If you have asthma, you shouldn’t smoke and you should keep your house smoke-free. “Second-hand smoke not only triggers asthma attacks but increases their severity,” says Dr. Villacis. “Children who have asthma are the most vulnerable.” In addition, fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, which release smoke into the air, should be used as infrequently as possible. Make sure your chimney is cleaned before you use it and that the flue works correctly.

Winter Bugs

The common cold or the flu can mean more than a stuffy nose or cough in a person with asthma. “If you have asthma, the inside walls of your airways are already irritated,” says Dr. Villacis. “Any respiratory infection can make asthma symptoms much worse and harder to control.”

Get a flu shot before flu season begins and wash your hands frequently to help avoid getting sick. But if you do come down with a bug, make sure to monitor your asthma symptoms closely, use your asthma medicine consistently and use a peak flow meter to measure how well your lungs are working.

“No matter what the season, asthma can be a difficult disease to live with if you don’t take steps to control it,” says Dr. Villacis. “If you feel like your asthma symptoms are getting worse this winter, talk to your doctor about ways to adjust your asthma management plan to reduce your risk of an attack.”