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Winter Asthma Triggers — and How to Avoid Them

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I live in a country that, at times, has been colder than Mars and the North Pole. Canada has a reputation for being cold — we are the True North (strong and free), after all.

My hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, is the coldest city in Canada with a population of over 100,000. It was ranked by AccuWeather as one of the five coldest cities in the world.

Our average lows in December and January are about 0°F and 3.28°F, respectively. This does not include our frigid wind chills thanks to Lake Winnipeg — the 10th largest lake in the world.

Over the last decade, living with asthma in one of the coldest cities on the planet, I know a thing or two about navigating the depths of true subzero with asthma.

Brace yourselves: Winter is coming

Preparing ahead of time can help to ensure you’re not caught off guard when icy winds start hurting your face and lungs. Cold air, exercise, indoor environments, and cold and flu season are all triggers to consider when preparing for winter.

If you’re like me and struggle with cold air triggering your asthma symptoms, check out my tips to help get ready for the dark days of winter:

  • Ensure you have extra medication available. I like to keep extra medication in my bag and jacket pocket to make sure it’s available when needed. That way, I never have to worry about accidentally leaving my medication at home.
  • Speak with your doctor. They may have suggestions for how you can manage your asthma during the winter, both via medication and lifestyle tricks or strategies appropriate for where you live. 

  • Have a scarf or mask on hand. Wearing a cold weather face mask or scarf can help warm the air before it reaches your lungs. Scarves or masks trap the humidity from your exhaled air and help mix it with the cold dry air from the environment. This warms and re-humidifies the outside air before it shocks your lungs. I wear glasses so this is a bit of a challenge due to fogging, but it’s one of my few surefire strategies to help manage cold air induced asthma symptoms. 


Consider your plans

When it comes to cold air, the easiest way to avoid it is to stay inside. However, you are not a bear, and it is not easy to hibernate all winter. I choose to do outdoor activities like ice skating on days where it is a more acceptable type of cold (to me) — like minus 4°F and warmer with the wind chill versus minus 22°F to minus 40°F. Your thresholds may vary.

I get around using public transit, and my bus stop is a moderate walk from my house. On days when it’s extremely cold, I may reschedule nonessential plans or make other arrangements for transportation.

Indoors: A harbor for triggers

Perhaps in the nicer seasons, your go-to is opening your windows to keep your home feeling fresh. In the depths of winter we want to keep the heat in and the cold out, and opportunities for refreshing rather than recirculating our air are minimal.

Less air movement makes it more difficult to move dust mites out of our homes. Dust mites may thrive in our homes during winter. Optimum conditions for dust mite growth are around 75 to 80°F (about 24 to 26°C) and 70 to 80 percent relative humidity, per University of Kentucky research. Keeping your thermostat turned down a bit and layering on the clothes can help prevent a dust mite takeover.

Fireplaces in the home can also cause problems for those with asthma. Smoke and fumes from wood fireplaces may be more apparent asthma triggers, but fumes from gas fireplaces and other appliances including stoves and heaters can cause problems for those with asthma, too.

If you have asthma, it may be best to stay warm with electric heat sources, layering clothing, and using blankets, rather than cozying up around the fire.

Stay vigilant when it comes to germs

With winter comes cold and flu season, which can be especially tricky for those of us with asthma. Boosting your immune system and avoiding germs as much as possible are essential this time of year. Washing your hands regularly, getting enough rest, eating well, and exercising regularly can help keep your body ready to fight off germs. It’s also helpful to stay current with preventive care and vaccines.

Winter is still my worst asthma season. Over the last decade I’ve picked up tricks that help me to manage living with asthma through some of the coldest winters out there — and stay as healthy as possible through them.

For more information on how to manage asthma triggers, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.

RESP-US-NP-00092 JANUARY 2019

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