Asthma sufferers face asthma triggers from many different fronts.
Common cleaning products or even perfume can cause asthma attacks.
Allergies to pet dander, pollen, mold, and dust mites can also induce
asthma attacks. Even the weather itself can pose dangers to asthma
sufferers, and the winter months are certainly no exception.
Cold Air Triggers Asthma
The cold air that winter brings can set off asthma attacks. Cold air
is often directly responsible for the onset of asthma symptoms, but upper
respiratory infections that are common in the wintertime can also cause
asthma attacks. Although cold air in itself does not cause colds, as folk
medicine (or your grandmother) may have suggested, cold air does affect
the respiratory system in several ways:
- Mucus transport - a thin layer of mucus, called the "mucus
blanket," coats the entire respiratory system. The mucus, which rests on
tiny hairs called cilia, protects the lungs from particles and organisms
by trapping them. The mucus blanket is actually in constant motion and
moves undesirable particles out of the respiratory system - when it's
working properly. Chemicals, cigarette smoke, and - you guessed it - cold
air can alter the effectiveness of the mucus blanket and make a person
more vulnerable to infection. The stickiness of the mucus traps
particles, and the fluidity of the mucus ushers them away from the lungs.
Although it stimulates mucus production, cold air makes the mucus
thicker. Thicker mucus means that inhaled particles are harder to remove
from the respiratory system.
- The nose - one function of the nose as it relates to respiratory
health is to condition inhaled air and thereby protect delicate lung
tissue. When you breathe in cold air, tiny blood vessels in your nose
warm the air. Blood rushes to the nose, and nose tissues swell (this
accounts for winter's red noses). Cold air also causes nose mucus to
become thicker and more abundant. Hence, cold air can produce nasal
congestion and stuffiness.
- The lungs - despite the protection of the mucus blanket and the nose,
cold air can still reach the lungs. When this happens, the lungs react by
releasing histamine, which causes wheezing, especially in asthma
In order to help protect your lungs from cold air that can lead to
respiratory infections and/or asthma symptoms, experts recommend warming
the air that you breathe. You can wear a scarf over your mouth when you
need to walk for a short time in cold air. Cold weather
masks are also a great option, especially if you need to be outside
in the cold for a longer period of time.
Indoor Air Quality Is Worse During Winter
As asthma sufferers know, allergies can be one of the biggest triggers
of asthma attacks. While pollen allergies are not much of a concern
during the winter, poorer indoor air quality during winter months can
spell danger for asthmatics. Closed doors and windows, sealed tightly
against the cold, prevent air circulation, leading to higher
concentrations of indoor allergens. On top of that, people spend more
time indoors during the winter, and therefore more time surrounded by -
and breathing in - indoor allergens. (Air quality is generally worse
indoors than out in any season, but especially during winter.)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that asthma
sufferers "identify asthma triggers in your home" as well as figure out
"ways to get rid of triggers in your home." Along with a recommendation
to asthma-proof your home, the EPA states: "Triggers are a part of
everyday life. Asthma attacks can be triggered by things like mold
growing on your shower curtain or tiny dust mites that live in blankets,
pillows, or your child's stuffed animals.
Fortunately, allergens such as mold, dust mites, and pet dander can be
kept under control. Proper care to minimize exposure to these allergens
could greatly reduce their impact as winter asthma triggers.
Mold is especially likely to grow throughout the cold and wet winter
months when there is extra moisture and less airflow in the house. Mold
treatment should involve both the removal of existing mold spores and the
prevention of new mold growth:
- Cleaning surfaces that are affected by mold should be the first
step. Mold and mildew removers such as M-1 House Wash, AllerMold, and Vital Oxide do a
- HEPA air purifiers are great for removing mold spores before they lead to new
mold growth or are inhaled by you.
- Pre-treat areas that are
susceptible to mold growth, such as shower curtains, bathroom tiles,
basements, or closets. Vital Oxide is a
safe and effective mold and mildew remover that also inhibits the growth
of new mold for up to seven months. M-1 Sure Cote also
acts as a sealant to prevent mold re-growth.
- As much as possible, allow moisture to escape from the home. If
possible, open windows to allow shower or cooking steam to escape, or
turn on air vents.
Dust mites and pet dander are also present in higher concentrations
during the winter months. Therefore, they are even more likely to trigger
allergy attacks, which in turn can lead to asthma problems. But as with
mold, dust mite and pet dander allergens can be effectively dealt with
through environmental control:
- Bathe pets regularly with dust mite and pet dander neutralizing shampoo. Alternatively, wipe them down with cleansing wipes that
- Clean furniture and surfaces frequently. Electrostatic dust cloths trap dust rather than just sweeping it into the air or
- Vacuum carpets with a HEPA filter-equipped vacuum. For extra control against dust mites in
carpeting, use a dust mite-killing carpet treatment such as The Ecology Works
DustMite and Flea Control, Allersearch X-Mite, or Anti
-Allergen Solution spray.
- Use HEPA air purifiers, which are over 99% effective at trapping airborne
particles, including both pet dander and dust mites.
- Cover mattresses, bedding, and pillows in allergy relief bedding, which keeps dust mite food (your dead skin cells) out and
dust mites in.
- Wash bedding, throw rugs, blankets, and stuffed animals frequently.
Special laundry additives such as de-mite Laundry Additive or Allergen Wash to remove dust mites and other allergens at any water
Taking control of the sources of poor winter indoor air quality will
go a long way in keeping both allergy and asthma attacks at a
With cold temperatures and less sunlight, winter is a time of
particular vulnerability to depression. The
Allergy & Asthma Advocate reports that depression rates among those
with chronic diseases are significantly higher than in those without
them. This is because chronic diseases such as asthma can greatly affect
people's quality of life by preventing them from participating in routine
activities or by making them feel helpless. Sadly, children are often the
ones affected by such depression. Unable to play with other children,
missing school, or waking up in the night unable to breathe can lead to
feelings of isolation and poor self-esteem.
Typical rates of depression are around 12.7% in men and 21.3% in
women, while asthmatics' rates of depression fall between 20% and 50%.
The Allergy & Asthma Advocate states, "Research has also indicated that
people with asthma who are depressed may not follow their asthma
management plan, and that they may have difficulty adjusting their
behaviors overall. Thus, one can get into a cycle whereby asthma symptoms
lead to feelings of helplessness and depression, which then lead to poor
self management of asthma, resulting in worsening of asthma
Successful management of asthma is key to keeping depression at bay.
In addition to medication regimens, allergen avoidance, and other asthma
management programs, exercise has proven to be an effective way to help
both asthma itself and tendencies toward depression.
Exercise Options for Those with Asthma
Exercise is an important component of an effective asthma treatment
regimen because it helps to increase lung capacity. However, exercise
could pose certain dangers for asthmatics. In fact, exercise-induced
asthma is a leading cause of asthma symptoms. Precautions should be taken
regarding what types of exercise are best for asthma sufferers. Exercising
during winter months poses an extra challenge because of the effect that
cold winter air has on the respiratory system.
One thing to keep in mind is to try to breathe through the nose as
much as possible. Breathing through the mouth, especially taking in big
gulps of air during aerobic exercise, doesn't allow the nose to perform
its function of warming air before it reaches the lungs. Wearing a cold weather mask during outdoor exercise during the winter is a good
idea; this way, asthma sufferers can still breathe normally (that is,
through their mouths during exercise) without suffering the effects of
cold air. Controlling the temperature of inhaled air through a cold
weather mask greatly reduces the incidence of exercise-induced
The type of exercise done by asthma sufferers is also important to
consider. Obstructive lung diseases such as asthma allow air into the
lungs, but block it from leaving the lungs effectively. This leads to an
excess of carbon dioxide in the lungs with no room for additional
Studies published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise
have shown that exercising on a bicycle is a prime option for those with
severe lung diseases. Running can greatly interfere with lung function;
cycling, on the other hand, even hard cycling, allows asthmatics to get
rid of excess carbon dioxide and take in the necessary amount of
Note: It's important for asthmatic individuals to discuss exercise
options with their doctors.
Should Asthma Sufferers Get a Flu Shot?
Simply put, yes. Winter time is peak flu season. The American Academy
of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) states that the flu "can cause a
severe asthma attack, which can lead to potential complications including
pneumonia and hospitalizations."
Since the flu infects millions of Americans every year, it's very
likely that any given individual will be exposed to it at some point or
another. The flu is a respiratory viral infection, so it's easy to see
how it can lead to asthma attacks. There is no way to cure it, so
prevention is the best remedy.
The flu is spread through the air and through contact. Sneezing and
coughing by infected individuals spews germ-laced airborne particles into
the air where they are often inhaled by nearby individuals. The flu can
also live on many surfaces for up to two hours. In addition to taking the
precaution of getting a flu shot, here are some things to keep in
- Wash hands frequently and avoid touching mucus membranes - the
eyes, nose, or mouth.
- As much as possible, steer clear of flu-harboring surfaces. Common
flu-passing culprits include grocery cart handles, elevator buttons
(especially the first floor button), escalator handrails, office desks,
- If possible, avoid close contact with others such as on subways or in
busses during flu season.
- Boost your immune system by eating well, sleeping enough, reducing
stress, and exercising.
Remember: People with allergies to egg or thimersol should not
receive flu shots.
Although cold months do offer a respite from pollen allergens, winter
is not time to get slack about controlling factors that could lead to
asthma attacks. Cold air often contributes to the onset of asthma
attacks, and other allergens such as dust, mold, and pet dander are often
at extra high levels in the wintertime. The flu, which infects millions
of Americans during the winter, also poses threats to asthma sufferers.
But with proper knowledge of these winter dangers, as well as the
resources to cope with them, asthma sufferers can help effectively reduce
the number of winter-related asthma problems.
Originally published in the
January 2008 issue of Allergy Consumer Report.
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