Coughing and Wheezing in Cold Weather?


What Causes Breathing Problems Besides Asthma

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In cold weather, have you ever noticed that you wheeze, cough, or have shortness of breath, especially after some vigorous snow shoveling or other physical exertions? You don't have to have chronic asthma to have these symptoms.

Most people with chronic asthma do ineed experience asthma symptoms such as difficultly breathing and chest-tighening when they exercise due to inflamed, narrowed airways.

However, cold and dry winter air causes similar symptoms in people who’ve never been diagnosed with asthma

What can cause breathing problems besides asthma?

This is a form of bronchoconstriction. Some medical experts prefer to call exercise-induced bronchoconstriction to distinguish it from chronic asthma. (Winter colds and other viruses may also be to blame.)

Causes of Bronchoconstriction

The culprit is simply frigid, dry air.  The condition is common in athletes, but also affects a significant population (about 10 percent) of ordinary folks. The cold affects walkers (especially people who do not exercise often) and also winter shovelers. 

Why? Your airways narrow as a result of physical exertion. The symptoms are brought on when you quickly breathe in air that is drier than what is already in your body, which causes a loss of heat, water, or both from your lungs. This dynamic becomes even more of a risk in cold weather because the air is dry.

Symptoms of exercise-induced asthma generally begin within five to 20 minutes after the start of physical activity, and typically end after exercise has stopped.

How to avoid wheezing and coughing?

But when you want or need to head outside in cold weather for a stretch of physical activity or exertion, what precautions can you take?

  1. If you experience these symptoms, a good rule of thumb is avoid exercising when outdoor temps fall below 10 degrees.
  2. Warm up indoors. Ideally, spend 15 minutes of warm-up exercises, punctuated by several intervals of high-intensity movement (e.g., jumping jacks, jumping rope, fast spinning on an exercise bike) that gets you breathing hard for a minute or two between rests of equal or less duration. 
  3. Walk, run, or exercise with with a scarf that covers your nose and mouth (or a face mask).

If you’ve never been diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma and notice asthma-like symptoms when you’re exercising outside, see your doctor.

Of course, if you're in better shape, this always helps!

Take care of yourself—and your loved ones—by taking proper precautions!

About The Author

Margaret Boyles

Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles

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