Out in the cold

Illustration of a person with a bike walking through a snowy landscape.


he cold weather has set in and breathing has become much more difficult. You can feel your chest tightening and you might even be wheezing.

If low temperatures make it harder for you to breathe, you may have cold weather asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), both of which can worsen in the winter when temperatures become brisk and chilly.

“It’s because the air is cold. But more importantly, it’s because it’s dry,” said Dr. Laurie Kilkenny, MD, FCCP, the chief of pulmonary disease at St. Clair Health who practices with St. Clair Medical Group Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine.

The colder and drier the air gets, the worse the symptoms become. “Cold air increases mucus production,” Kilkenny said. “It increases histamine release, which is something that can make your airways very tight. Also, in the cold air, we’re inside more often and we’re in closer contact with other people…. We have more contact with dust and other allergens.”

With both asthma and COPD, Kilkenny said, people have trouble getting air out of their lungs. The airways are tightened, which means the air in your chest has trouble escaping.

“Because you can’t get air out, you almost feel like you can’t get air in because your chest is already full,” she said.

So, what are symptoms of cold weather asthma and COPD and what can you do to combat it?

You might experience wheezing, shortness of breath, tightening of the chest and coughing, which gets worse when the weather hits near freezing temperatures.

“They notice that with the same amount of activity, they’re more short of breath,” Kilkenny said of cold-weather asthma sufferers. “Because it’s only at certain times of the year, they think, ‘Oh, it might just be an illness or I might have a virus, because the cold weather is during peak virus times. So they might not know that’s exactly what it is.”

At the onset, many people head to their primary care physician seeking advice, Kilkenny said. If the patients continue to have symptoms, they end up in her office, where she comes up with an action plan to address the issue.

Here are some tips to deal with the cold weather when it impacts your breathing:

  • Pay attention to the temperature, Kilkenny said. If it’s cold outside, cover your mouth with a scarf or even a mask. Breathing through your nose warms the air and adds some moisture to it before it hits your lungs. Taking a gasping breath through your mouth doesn’t come with that luxury.
  • If you’re on breathing medications, make sure you take them as scheduled. “You don’t want to be behind the eight ball before you even start,” Kilkenny said.
  • Some people find that using a rescue inhaler about 20 minutes before heading outside on a daunting task­—or even just a walk across the parking lot—can help.
  • Consider moving your activities indoors. If you’re an outdoor runner or biker, use a treadmill or a stationary bike for a couple of months to avoid the bitter cold.
  • Keep your house dust-free. Cut down on the number of full carpets in your house; try (if at all possible) to keep your pets from sleeping with you.
  • If you’re headed outside, warm up before you go out. “Not just for sports, but even if you’re doing something where you’re walking any kind of distance in the mall parking lot, it’s best to warm up your airways by doing some quicker walking in your house before you leave,” said Kilkenny. “It gets your airways primed and ready and it warms up your lungs and increases your blood flow to the body.”
  • If you’re having issues, consult a doctor. They can put you on a breathing plan to address your specific issues.