Trigger me this, winter: Why asthma flares up when temps drop down

It’s wintertime…and for 24.6 million Americans suffering from asthma, the breathing isn’t easy. If you deal with this chronic condition, you already know that every season brings its own set of unique triggers—and they aren’t all created equal. In other words, what irritates one asthmatic may not affect others.
What makes winter particularly challenging is there’s no safe haven from asthma triggers, whether you’re inside or out. With increased prevalence of colds and flu (the most common causes of flare-ups), you’ve got the perfect storm brewing for an asthma attack—the symptoms of which include coughing, chest tightening or pain, wheezing and trouble breathing.
So how can you keep Jack Frost from nipping at your lungs? Watch out for these common irritants that can spark an unexpected attack.

Holiday hazards and winter watch-outs

CHEMICALS AND FRAGRANCE:

  • Aggressively cleaned destinations, including your own home
  • Scented candles and incense
  • Liberal use of perfume (sorry, Great Aunt Betty)

COLD AIR:

  • Heavy winds and extreme temperatures (especially if your nose, mouth or chest is exposed)
  • Outdoor exercise, including winter sports like skiing, ice hockey or snow-tubing

DUST:

  • Artificial trees and decorations brought out of long-term storage (perhaps in a dusty attic or basement)
  • Upholstered furniture, carpeting and bedding

MOLD:

  • Real trees and greenery, which can hold mold spores
  • Poorly sealed windows or inadequately maintained heating systems—these can impact condensation and humidity levels in your home
  • Water spots, stains or leaks—these can be a sign of indoor mold growth

PET DANDER:

  • The furry and feathered friends of your holiday hosts
  • Pet-friendly hotel rooms
  • The so-called “Thanksgiving Effect,” which describes a sudden allergy to a pet you were otherwise used to (it happens after you’ve been away from a pet for a period of time)

SMOKE:

  • Fireplaces and fire pits
  • Tobacco- and cigar-filled parties and events
  • Hotel rooms within or near a smoking block

 

Other conditions

Another surprisingly common asthma trigger is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), which tends to flare up when you’re making (too much) merry. “The holidays are prime time for GERD to act up due to dietary changes and even weight gain during this period,” says Dr. Pourmassina. “An asthmatic may not even realize he or she is having reflux because it can manifest as increased wheezing rather than classic heartburn symptoms.”

Sick and tired? Proceed with extra caution

Bacterial infections, viruses and the common cold can spell trouble for asthmatic lungs. “If you have asthma and get sick, take it seriously—don’t just try to push through,” warns Dr. Pourmassina. “Pay close attention to how you are feeling—and especially to how you are breathing.”
In addition, over-the-counter medicines—like aspirin, ibuprofen and decongestants—may include ingredients that are potentially dangerous for asthmatics. Up to 20% of people who have asthma can have a serious adverse reaction to these common household drugs. So if you’re feeling unwell, it’s always best to check in with a physician to be sure you’re taking safe medications to treat your pain or congestion.
Not sure what’s causing your asthma? Start a visit with 98point6. Our doctors can help you recognize, track and avoid your triggers.

How to stay in control

  • If you’ve been prescribed medications, use them consistently. Make sure your meds are well-stocked and not expired—especially when traveling.
  • Know your “personal best” peak flow number (your highest reading during a two- to three-week period) and continue to use your meter regularly. This will help you detect changes before symptoms worsen, and help your physician determine how to best treat you.
  • Follow typical prevention steps: wash your hands, stay away from people who appear to be sick and get the flu shot
  • Because there is such a close connection between GERD and asthma, be mindful of your holiday dietary changes. If your reflux symptoms persist, connect with a physician to see if you would benefit from prescription treatment.
Breathe easier! With 98point6, you can access convenient, private virtual care anytime, anywhere right from your smartphone.

Download the app

98point6 delivers on-demand primary care via secure in-app messaging.

Share this article