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5 ways to manage asthma symptoms and prevent attacks during winter

Do you struggle with asthma in the winter months? If so, you are not alone. Asthma affects more than 26 million Americans and is the most common chronic disease among children, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The cold weather and cold air that comes with winter can exacerbate the symptoms of asthma, increasing the risk of asthma attacks and other complications related to the condition. If you or your children suffer from asthma and find it difficult to manage the condition during the winter, here are five simple ways to ensure you are prepared for the chilly winter months… 

1. Stay warm

It may seem simple, but wrapping up before going outside is one of the easiest precautions you can take to minimize your risk of experiencing asthma complications in winter. A scarf wrapped loosely around the mouth and nose not only keeps your neck warm and cozy, but it will also help warm the cold air before you breathe it into your lungs. Cold air is one of the most common asthma triggers, making breathing difficult as the airways become inflamed and narrow. This reduces the amount of air inhaled with each breath, which is why many people with asthma find they have problems breathing during the winter. 

Wrapping up warm in the winter months will also reduce the chance you will catch a common cold or the flu. A flu infection can be more serious for people with asthma, even if you have your condition well controlled with medication. The flu can cause inflammation of the airways, which can further impair breathing, increasing the risk of asthma attacks and potentially making the symptoms of asthma worse. While taking precautions to avoid catching a common cold or the flu is always advisable during the winter, it is particularly important if you have asthma. For more ways to prevent these common winter ailments, click here.

Tip: Try breathing through your nose rather than your mouth when out in the cold. This warms up the air before it reaches the lungs, helping prevent cold air from triggering asthma symptoms or an asthma attack. 

2. Always carry your inhaler and use as instructed

Regardless of the severity of your asthma, you should always adhere to your asthma treatment plan and be particularly vigilant during winter. If you plan on venturing outside, ensure you pack your rescue inhaler so you are not caught short without it. When the weather is cold, you may also need to take a preventative dose of your medicine before heading outside into the cold air. 

Even if you generally have mild asthma symptoms and do not normally carry a rescue inhaler, it may be worth considering carrying one as a precaution when the biting winter weather sets in. If you do not have a prescription, you can get over-the-counter inhalers, such as the Primatene Mist, which was re-approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in November 2018. There are a number of prescription options to help relieve asthma symptoms, including the new generic Ventolin HFA (albuterol sulfate) inhaler from GlaxoSmithKline, which became available in the United States at the start of 2019. 

3. Review your medication with your doctor

Asthma is a common and chronic condition with varying degrees of severity, but it should never be underestimated, even if you only suffer from mild asthma symptoms, such as occasional shortness of breath. While you may barely be troubled by asthma during the warmer months of the year, cold air and cold weather are among the most common asthma triggers and make symptoms worse. If you are concerned about how the winter will affect your asthma or are someone who spends a lot of time active or outside in the cold, consider reviewing your medication with your physician. They may recommend a stronger or different medication to help you through the winter months. 

If you find you use your inhaler more often than normal as the weather gets colder, speak to your physician. Your doctor can conduct an asthma review to check the health of your lungs and establish whether you need to change your asthma medications. And remember, if you have been prescribed a preventative inhaler, ensure you use it as directed, even if you feel well and are breathing normally. 

4. Have an asthma action plan

Much of preparing for winter as an asthma sufferer is about proper planning. You need to ensure you take your preventative inhaler regularly as prescribed and to keep your rescue inhaler close at hand for quick-relief, particularly if you venture out into the cold. However, you also need to know what to do in the event of an asthma attack or if your symptoms worsen. Your doctor can help you draw up a written asthma action plan outlining how to manage your winter asthma. Your asthma action plan should include: 

  • Which asthma medication to take and when each should be taken
  • Identification of possible asthma triggers
  • Knowing how to spot early asthma symptoms and manage them to prevent a full asthma flare-up
  • Guidelines on how and when to get emergency care in the event of an asthma attack or more serious symptoms

Having a plan in place could be the difference between a minor asthma flare-up and a full asthma attack, so make sure you know what to do if you feel your breathing deteriorating. Asthma action plans should cover three main areas of asthma management: 

  1. Day-to-day asthma management, including preventative measures
  2. What to do when you feel worse
  3. What to do in the event of an asthma attack

If your children suffer from asthma, ensure they have a written copy of their asthma action plan to take with them when they leave the house. Schools or daycare should also be fully aware when they are responsible for a child with asthma and need to be provided with a copy of the asthma action plan and access to the right medications in the event of an emergency or asthma flare-up. 

5. Consider getting a flu shot

CDC guidelines recommend that anyone with asthma in the United States should get a flu vaccination ahead of the flu season. You will require the new flu shot each year as the vaccination is adjusted annually to tackle the prevalent strains of the virus. Injectable flu shots are available for anyone over the age of 6 months. People between two and 49 years of age can opt for the nasal spray flu vaccine. However, there is a warning against using this particular form of the vaccine to immunize people with asthma, as it may increase the risk of wheeziness following the vaccination. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternative vaccination options so you can still give yourself a good chance of avoiding the flu this winter. 

Wrapping up…

Whatever the weather, make sure you take all the usual precautions if you or a family member struggle with asthma. When the cold weather sets in, many of us will spend more time in the home rather than venturing out into the cold air. This means staying on top of potential asthma triggers in the home is even more important in the winter; keep the house clean and free of dust mites and pet dander as these are common year-round asthma triggers and if you are at home more, you risk greater exposure to these. If you have a fireplace in your home, try to resist the temptation to warm up by sitting next to the fire for prolonged periods of time, as the dry air can be another trigger. If you are unsure how to prepare for the winter or want further advice about your asthma action plan, make sure you book an appointment to see your doctor or healthcare provider. Stay warm and stay healthy!