Cold weather

If you experience respiratory symptoms in freezing weather, protect your lungs with a scarf or a heat exchanger mask. Be mindful of your symptoms when you exercise.

Freezing weather increases respiratory symptoms. Tolerance to cold weather varies from person to person.

Factors that affect cold tolerance include

  • body size and shape
  • amount of subcutaneous fat
  • physical fitness
  • age
  • sex
  • smoking.

Cold weather increases symptoms in 70% of asthma patients. Cold-induced symptoms are also common in people with allergies, bronchitis, and COPD.

One of the most common symptoms is a runny nose. When the temperature drops below zero, it can irritate the mucous membranes of the nose. The nasal mucosa will start to swell and secrete fluids.

The swollen nasal mucosa blocks the nose and interferes with air flow. To satisfy the body’s need for oxygen, we start breathing through our mouths. When we breathe through our mouths, we inhale air directly into the lungs. When the air temperature hits -20°C, the air is almost 10°C colder when it reaches the lungs as opposed to inhaling room-temperature air indoors.

Respiratory symptoms usually start when the temperature hits -15–25°C. Wind speed increases shortness of breath.

Cold air dries and cools the airways, causing them to constrict. At the same time, cold air increases mucus secretion, causes the lining of the bronchi to swell, and impairs the functioning of the cilia, which line the mucous membranes and remove excess mucus. This reduces lung capacity, which, in turn, leads to impaired pulmonary ventilation and aerobic capacity. This can make exhalation feel heavy and cause wheezing in the airways. 

Symptoms of asthma and COPD include exhalation difficulties. Compared to non-smokers, respiratory symptoms are almost twice as common among smokers. Every respiratory infection aggravates the symptoms of the existing respiratory condition and interferes with treatment balance. For people with COPD, cold air can trigger flare-ups that can even turn fatal.

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How to protect yourself from freezing air

  • Protect your lungs with a heat exchanger mask. A heat exchanger mask disrupts the flow of air slightly, making it a bit harder to breathe. Although this may force you to slow down a bit, it will not keep you from exercising.
  • Another method is to protect your face and neck with a scarf. This will keep cold air from provoking the nerve endings that sense cold, preventing constriction of the airways.
  • You shouldn’t stop exercising in winter altogether. For people with respiratory diseases, physical fitness is a vital part of successful self-care. Talk to your doctor about how cold air affects your disease. Ask your doctor for instructions to minimise the negative effects of cold air.
  • Keep your medication on hand when you spend time outdoors in freezing weather. Exercising in a cold environment increases respiratory symptoms. This is why people with respiratory diseases should not exercise too much in freezing temperatures. Your tolerance to exercising in cold weather is also affected by how well your respiratory disease is under control. In freezing temperatures, you should reduce the intensity of your workouts by fifty per cent. You should always have your reliever medication on hand just in case.   
  • Drivers should make sure that their vehicles’ fresh air filters are working properly during the coldest months.