Care for the Lungs in Frigid Air

It's been cold outside, and those frigid temperatures could spell trouble for the lungs, especially for people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

Rachel Taliercio of the Cleveland Clinic said people with chronic lung conditions may notice it's harder to breathe outdoors when the mercury drops.

Cold air is dry, it can be irritating to the lungs, and it can cause particularly the large airways to narrow making it harder to breathe, said Dr. Taliercio. 

“So, it's really important if you do have to go outside in the cold temperatures that you take your rescue inhaler, your quick relief medication, with you in the event that your symptoms flare.”

Cold air can even be irritating to healthy lungs, but Dr. Taliercio said people with chronic lung conditions are most at risk for having breathing problems, like coughing and wheezing, during a deep freeze. 

She tells her patients that a good rule of thumb is to be wary of temperatures below 10 degrees Fahrenheit and wind chills below zero as conditions within this range may cause airway and lung irritation.

She recommends folks with lung disease try and limit time outdoors on extremely cold days, when possible.

However, for those who do venture outdoors, covering the nose and mouth with a scarf will help.

When you don't have your nose and mouth covered you're breathing in the cold air. When you do cover it, it just warms the air and so the air can be less irritating to the upper airways and to the lungs, said Dr. Taliercio.

Taliercio adds that it's important to call a healthcare provider if fast-acting medications and inhalers aren't providing relief for coughing and wheezing.

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