People often think winter brings relief from asthma as it does with seasonal allergies. That may sometimes be the case, but asthma flares up in response to “triggers,” not calendars. Some asthmatics find that their specific triggers are more commonplace during the cold of winter.
Asthma triggers are things that constrict the “twitchy” airways of asthmatics, potentially causing an asthma attack. Asthma attacks can occur at any time, but there are peaks of illness in August and January.
Wintertime Asthma Triggers
Cold winter air, especially dry air, is an asthma trigger. People with asthma should bundle up in a scarf when going out in extremely cold weather. The risk of an asthma attack seems to be higher when you are exposed to a burst of cold air suddenly and your airways warm up again right afterward. Avoiding these abrupt changes should help prevent asthma attacks.
Besides dressing warmly and wearing a scarf over your mouth, ask your doctor if and when you should use your inhaler before going out.
People who exercise out in the elements may need to wear a special facemask. See my article “Exercise and Asthma” for more information about asthmatics and winter exercise.
Colds and flu can also trigger asthma, which is another reason asthma peaks in January, the height of the cold and flu season. That is why flu shots are advised for asthmatics. Colds are much harder to prevent, but do what you can: Wash your hands frequently; eat well; get plenty of rest; stay away from people with colds; and try to avoid touching things, like telephones, that have been used by someone with a cold.
Winter Allergies and Other Triggers
Allergies also trigger asthma. Pollen allergies are uncommon during the winter, except in the warm parts of the country where a few plants may bloom. In places like California and the Pacific Northwest, winter is the rainy season. The rain brings an increase of molds and mildews, whose spores are a common source of allergy.
If your home is damp and you are allergic to mold, you may need to kill the mold and dehumidify the environment. On the other hand, indoor air that is too dry may cause problems, too. In the winter, homes and offices are often heated and well-sealed against the cold. Doing this keeps things warm and dry, but may promote exposure to other asthma triggers, such as dust mites, cockroach droppings and indoor contaminants and pollutants.