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Many asthma sufferers dread winter weather more than most due to the cold, dry air that can trigger symptoms.
The air, which is much drier during the colder months, causes asthmatic airways to become hypersensitive. This may prompt asthma attacks and other asthmatic episodes.
The effect that cold, dry air has on the airways of a person with asthma can be compared to the way we feel after getting out of the ocean on a hot summer day, said Dr. Neil Schachter, professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
“Imagine a hot day in New York, and you go to Long Island and you go to the beach. You’re sweating, so you get in the water, and when you come out, you’re freezing - that’s because the hot air causes water to evaporate from the skin,” Schachter said. “The act of evaporation causes the temperature of the skin to drop and the same thing happens to the airway when it comes in contact with cold, dry air.”
Airways contract when sudden drying occurs due to frigid air, and coughing can occur.
“Unlike skin or other parts of the body, [the airway] doesn’t respond to pain which causes coughs or spasms which are the hallmarks of asthma,” Schachter said.
Cold weather-induced asthma is closely related to exercise-induced asthma since both exacerbate the speed at which an airway can dry. Exercise causes an airway to dry through rapid, heavy breathing – similar to cold weather.
“When you have people exercising in the cold, you have a double whammy,” said Schachter. “Not only are they breathing in the cold, dry air, you’re breathing it in more profoundly and you’re drying the airway at a faster rate.”
There are a number of precautions that people with asthma can take to prevent excessive asthmatic episodes throughout the winter months.
Schachter recommended the “scarf method,” which constitutes wearing a scarf and wrapping it loosely around your mouth and nose.
“With this, there’s a mixture of cold and warm air; every time you breathe out some of the air remains and then when you breathe in, the cold air passes through the warm, moist air and reduces the effect of the cold weather,” he said.
Various medications can be used to either control or rescue symptoms of asthma. Rescue medications are called “short-acting bronchodilators” and can be taken at the onset of asthmatic symptoms for a quick and dramatic solution, explained Schachter.
Controller medications, on the other hand, can be taken regularly to stabilize the airway and prevent asthma attacks by protecting the airway from irritations like cold air.
It's important to prevent catching a cold or flu, two viral illnesses that can greatly increase the effects of asthma, Schachter said.
“The most important message is that you should get a flu shot yearly if you’re an asthmatic," Schachter said, emphasizing how important it is to avoid close contact with those who are sick.
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