Dealing with cold air as an asthma trigger

January 05, 2012 By Michael J. McNamee, M.D.

Just about everybody knows someone with asthma, perhaps a family member, co-worker or friend. Asthma is a chronic condition defined by inflammation in the bronchial airways that causes the airways to overreact when they're stimulated. This could prompt coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing. Some asthma triggers could come from allergens, like cats and dogs; from exercise; or strong smells like perfume or cleaning fluid. Almost everyone with asthma reacts badly to an upper respiratory infection, commonly known as a “cold.”

During winter, patients with asthma are very aware of another asthma “trigger,” namely exposure to cold air. Patients whose asthma is provoked by cold air try to avoid it. And when they are outside, they usually wrap a scarf around their neck and cover their mouth and nose to provide some extra warmth for their airways.

Although asthma has no cure, there are excellent medicines that control the condition by decreasing the overly reactive bronchial airways. Most of these medications are taken as inhalers so they can work directly on the airways. If taken every day, whether the patient is having symptoms or not, these medications are referred to as “maintenance” medications. Anyone with frequent or severe asthma symptoms should not just rely on using an inhaler when they have symptoms. They should be on “maintenance” medications at least daily to protect them from symptoms before they even occur.

We judge whether asthma is poorly controlled by determining whether patients are having frequent symptoms requiring a rescue inhaler, are waking up at night with asthma (asthma tends to be worse at night), or are making extra visits to the doctor or the Emergency Room.

Remember that uncontrolled asthma can be dangerous and even deadly. But patients who work closely with their doctors to establish a successful control strategy can have few symptoms, pursue normal activities, and protect themselves from complications.

Dr. Michael McNamee is a member of The Hospital of Central Connecticut (HOCC) medical staff and director of HOCC Pulmonary/Critical Care Medicine. For referrals to HOCC physicians, please contact our free Need-A-Physician referral service by phone at 800.321.6244.