Winter can be tough when you live with asthma. Cróna Tansey shares 9 ways to prepare for the cooler months.
A feeling of dread comes over me whenever I face another winter living with asthma. It's the usual dread of cold air and the risk of infection. It's this feeling that's now forcing me into action early in the autumn.
As a teacher, autumn is when I get organised and back into proper routines. I go back to school in late August when it's time to dust off my laptop and get organised for the academic year ahead.
After a couple of unbearable winters living with asthma, I decided to add "prepare for winter" to my list of priorities for the autumn months. You know that preparation is vital when you've lived with asthma for as long as I have.
The impact of colds and infections on my asthma
Before I got into the habit of properly preparing for the winter months, I found myself unwell with colds and infections every couple of weeks. I was told that many of the illnesses could be put down to being a teacher and that I'd eventually "build up a resistance" to infections that I was exposed to in the classroom.
This was the issue: I'd been teaching for several years already, and I felt like I hadn't built up any resistance. It felt like once I overcame one chest infection, another one was waiting to take its place.
This also triggered my asthma – so not only did I have to manage the symptoms of a chest infection, but I also had my asthma symptoms to contend with. The symptoms included wheeziness, coughing, chest tightness, and sleep loss.
I was ill so regularly that I was embarrassed to tell people when I felt unwell. All I wanted was to feel as healthy and resilient as everyone else, but I just couldn't get there.
My asthma symptoms got worse
Suddenly, I began experiencing a lot of unexpected asthmatic flare-ups. I'd have coughing fits, I'd feel wheezy most of the time, and my voice was always weak. Suddenly, the environmental factors I used to endure (like vehicle pollution in cities) became unbearable. It eventually felt like my body was reacting to every trigger I encountered.
This was a frustrating change, as previously, I had never experienced this level of hypersensitivity to everyday things like dust, cold air, and air pollution. It was scary that my asthma could be so unpredictable and so uncontrolled.
I was once so severely affected and run-down during the winter that I remained unwell until May (which is late spring in Ireland) and came down with a case of shingles. It felt like there was no end to my list of illnesses.
Because of my poor health, everything else started to fall apart… I was missing out on social events and couldn't pursue my hobbies. I had many medical expenses from visiting my doctor, getting emergency appointments, and all the prescriptions from the pharmacy. I was missing work and other important engagements.
I knew this wasn't right.
Taking back control
Thankfully, my doctor recommended that I see a respiratory consultant in the end. They confirmed my asthma was not under control and that most of my illnesses were linked to asthma somehow.
I got a lot of reassurance from this. I could finally understand that some of my symptoms resulted from my asthma and allergies. It was also reassuring to hear that these symptoms could be easily managed with a few simple adjustments to my routine.
How to prepare for winter with asthma
After this realisation, I worked closely with my doctor and consultant to control my asthma. I did lots of research on properly managing my symptoms during the colder months. I then decided I'd make a conscious effort to try and improve my health during the winter.
Talk to your doctor if you also need help managing your asthma symptoms. Together, you can develop a plan to get your symptoms under control. In the meantime, here's my winter checklist that helps me manage my asthma:
Keep your asthma symptoms under control
Make an "asthma action plan"
Work closely with your doctor to identify triggers and uncontrolled asthma symptoms. Make sure you work out your medication routine. Follow this consistently.
Avoid cold air
Cold air is one of my worst triggers. Invest in a warm winter coat and a scarf if you're the same. During cold spells, cover your chest, neck and mouth. This is essential for when I'm doing playground supervision in the winter!
Keep dust to a minimum
Ensure your home and work environments are as dust-free as possible by vacuuming and dusting regularly. I wear a face mask while I'm completing these tasks to avoid dust that's stirred up (and the resulting asthma and allergy flare-ups).
Always ask your doctor
Rather than allowing your symptoms to develop and worsen, visit your doctor when things flare-up. This is especially important if you have an infection.
Try to prevent infection:
Get a flu vaccine
We're often prone to infection and other illnesses during the winter months, so my doctor advised I get a flu vaccine as a precaution. Speak to your healthcare team to see if this is something that might be suitable for you also.
Eat well and exercise
If you can, make a special effort to prepare healthy lunches to take to work or on days out. Try to keep up with an exercise routine if you're feeling well enough.
Try to avoid harmful bacteria
Keep a bottle of hand sanitiser or some tissues with you at all times. This helps me steer clear of picking up infections in the classroom during the winter months.
On days when you feel unwell, take the time you need to catch up on sleep and to recover. You'll thank yourself for this later.
By following my "prepare for winter" checklist and understanding what will keep my asthma under control, I can finally enjoy the season. It's such a relief to know that by making simple changes to my routine and by remaining consistent, I can carry on doing the things that I love. I feel so much healthier and stronger, and my doctor, family, and friends have all noticed the difference.
I'm no longer embarrassed to admit that I get sick because it's not a regular occurrence anymore! I will continue to consistently care for myself and my asthma, especially when I know winter is coming.
NPS-IE-NP-00355 December 2021