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Is Cold Weather Bad for Your Lungs?

Frigid temps can cause a host of breathing issues, especially during exercise

spinner image man checking his heart rate outside in the cold weather
Justin Paget / Getty Images

It’s challenging enough to exercise even in the mildest of temperatures. But when it’s cold out, it can be particularly uncomfortable.

Even a brisk walk outdoors can trigger shortness of breath and chest discomfort. Turns out, the chilly air is to blame.

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Cold air tends to be drier, explains Aryan Shiari, M.D., a pulmonologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. And even though the lungs work hard to warm and humidify the air we take in, that cold, dry air can irritate the airways and cause them to narrow and tighten — a condition known as bronchospasm. “You get that feeling of shortness of breath,” Shiari says. Wheezing and coughing can also ensue.

Symptoms can become especially noticeable when temperatures dip below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. And exercise can exacerbate matters. Rapid breathing, coupled with the loss of heat and water from the airways as a result of trying to humidify the cold, dry air, can trigger exercise-induced asthma, Shiari says. “This is why some people develop exercise-induced asthma primarily while exercising in the winter and are otherwise fine during other seasons,” he adds.

And while people with chronic lung conditions are more susceptible to the effects of cold air, even people with healthy lungs may find themselves coughing and wheezing.

“When it’s colder out, you need to be more careful with your workouts, even if you don’t have asthma or another underlying lung condition,” says Amit Mahajan, M.D., medical director of interventional pulmonology for the Inova Health System in Fairfax, Virginia. 

Who is at risk?

Anyone with a chronic lung disease such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is at risk of experiencing breathing difficulties when it’s cold out, says Rachel Taliercio, a pulmonologist at Cleveland Clinic.

“If you have any of these conditions, your airways are already inflamed,” she says. “Cold, dry air irritates them even more, which causes airway muscles to constrict and narrow and become clogged with mucus.”

Taliercio recommends that people with lung issues take their workout indoors once temperatures dip below freezing. And everyone should avoid exercising outdoors when it’s colder than 10 degrees, she adds.

“Even if you’re a high-performance athlete, once you’re exercising in single-digit weather, there’s no good way to protect yourself and your lungs,” Taliercio says.

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A January 2018 study in the journal Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Research found that female athletes who exercised at temperatures below -15 Celsius (roughly 5 degrees Fahrenheit) were significantly more likely to report respiratory symptoms such as coughing, wheezing or a sore throat.

There’s no benefit to your lungs if you exercise outdoors in the cold either, Taliercio adds. In fact, you’ll probably get a better workout indoors since you won’t have to stop to deal with coughing or wheezing.

Cold-weather precautions

If you are going to be outdoors in the cold, Shiari recommends adopting a few precautions.

  • Try to breathe in through your nose rather than your mouth (we know, it’s hard). “Your nose does a much better job at humidifying and heating air than your mouth,” Shiari says.
  • Use a scarf or ski mask to cover your nose and mouth to protect your airways by retaining heat and moisture as you breathe.
  • Layer up. If it’s colder out, chances are you’re also in the thick of cold and flu season. While getting a chill won’t actually cause you to get sick, it can make you more susceptible to getting a respiratory infection. “When you’re extremely cold, your immune system isn’t functioning as well as it should,” says Mahajan, who is also a volunteer medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association. And if you are exposed to a virus, your body will be less able to fight it off. Dress warmly, and make sure your head and feet are thoroughly covered so they don’t get too cold.
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  • If you have allergies or asthma, Taliercio recommends that you stay on top of your symptoms. “Take all your medications as prescribed, such as daily inhalers, and keep your house free of known irritants such as dust mites or mold,” she says. “You want to make sure your indoors is allergen free so you’re best prepared when you do get outside in cold weather.”

Exercising outdoors? Here are some additional tips.

  • Do warm-up exercises for 10 to 15 minutes at moderate intensity indoors before heading out, Shiari says.
  • If you have an underlying lung condition such as asthma or COPD, keep your rescue inhalers with you. “Often, people don’t experience symptoms such as chest tightness, breathlessness and a cough right away. It happens about five to ten minutes into exercise,” Taliercio says. The American Lung Association also recommends that you use your quick-relief inhaler about 20 to 30 minutes before you venture outside for your workout.
  • Notify a family member or friend that you will be exercising outdoors and, if possible, ask them to check on you in reasonable intervals to make sure you are all right, Shiari says. 
  • If possible, exercise outdoors during low traffic hours, such as early in the morning. “You don’t want to be jogging out on a busy road where you’re exposed to other irritants such as gas fumes in addition to cold air,” Taliercio says.  

The good news is you don’t need to worry about frostbitten lungs. “Even in the bitter cold, the air we breathe reaches body temperature by the time it gets to our lungs,” Mahajan says.

Still, cold air can cause a lot of unpleasant airway irritation. That’s why if you have any concerns about whether it’s too cold, it may be a good idea to err on the side of caution and exercise in the comfort of your own home or at a gym.

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