Asthma at Christmas:
75% of the 5.4 million people in the UK with asthma tell us that cold weather is a trigger for their asthma. So if you’re heading off for a winter walk go prepared.
Cut your risk by carrying your inhaler with you and wear a scarf over your mouth so you’re not breathing in cold air. Breathing air in through your nose will warm it up. Don’t be put off going out – exercise improves lung function so wrap up warm and put a glow in your cheeks!
"The good news for most people is that if your asthma is under control, you should not be experiencing symptoms – even on the coldest days or when you exercise vigorously." - Debby Waddell, Lead Clinical Advisor, Asthma UK.
Can the cold weather affect my asthma?
Yes - winter can be a particularly risky time for many of the 5.4 million people with asthma in the UK, with 75% saying that cold air triggers their asthma. Kay Boycott, Chief Executive at Asthma UK, says: “Cold weather can make asthma feel worse. It’s worth using a few simple strategies to get through autumn and winter feeling as well as possible.”
What can I do to stop the cold weather triggering my asthma?
- Take your medication. “The most important thing you can do is make sure your asthma is well controlled, as this means you are more likely to be able to stay well and withstand the risks of the winter months,” says Debby.
You can do this by making sure you are taking your prescribed medication regularly, and in the correct way as discussed with your GP or asthma nurse - using a personal asthma action plan. You can check your inhaler technique with your GP, asthma nurse or pharmacist, or have a look at our inhaler technique page for reference.
- Get extra help if you need it. If you experience symptoms, or need to use your inhaler more than usual, take the Triple A test to help you recognise if your asthma is at a stage where you need some extra help during the winter weather. Take the results along to your doctor or asthma nurse to discuss what you can do to protect yourself.
- Be prepared to face the cold. Check the forecast, and if the outlook is cold, make sure you:
Remember that the difference between inside and outside temperature can be a factor – so even going in and out of heated shops, or going from a nightclub or pub out into the cold air are all times when you need to look after yourself by wrapping up well - place a scarf loosely over your nose and mouth –this will help to warm up the air before you breathe it in.
- Carry your blue reliever inhaler with you at all times and keep taking your regular preventer inhaler as prescribed by your doctor. If you need to use your inhaler more often than usual, or use more puffs, speak to your doctor about reviewing your medication.
- Keep warm and dry - wear gloves, a scarf and a hat, and carry an umbrella.
- Try breathing in through your nose instead of your mouth as your nose is designed to warm and humidify air.
Should I exercise in cold weather if I have asthma?
“Exercise is beneficial for people with asthma,” says Debby. Exercise can help improve lung function and improve fitness, reducing the likelihood of exercise-induced asthma as you get fitter. But over three quarters of people with asthma have told Asthma UK that exercise is a trigger for their condition. In colder weather, this can often be because during aerobic activity you would inhale more of the cold air, breathing it in through your mouth (which means that it is not warmed or moistened by your nose) and breathe it more deeply into your lungs.
Get the benefits of exercise without increasing your risk of triggering asthma by:
- Exercising indoors
You could try indoor exercises, from swimming to Zumba, spinning to strength training. You can also exercise in the comfort of your own home. Jumping jacks, jump rope, stair stepping, dancing, lunges, yoga and using exercise videos are all fantastic examples of getting exercise when it’s too difficult to go outside. Even housework, especially mopping and vacuuming can be very physical – and you can end up killing two birds with one stone!
- Preparing well to exercise outdoors
- Warm up and warm down thoroughly for 10-15 minutes. If you regularly have asthma symptoms when you exercise in cold weather speak to your doctor or asthma nurse who will be able to advise you and may change your medication accordingly.
- Dress appropriately - make sure your chest and throat are covered warmly and that you keep a scarf around your nose.
- If you're exercising with someone, make sure they know you have asthma, and that you have an in date, working inhaler on you.
- If you have symptoms when you exercise, stop, take your reliever inhaler and wait until you feel better before starting again. If this happens frequently when you exercise make an appointment to discuss this with your GP or asthma nurse.
- Consider more moderate activity to reduce your need for such deep breaths of cold air - for example a power walk instead of a run. You can play with the kids in the park, take the dog for a walk, or go for a gentle bike ride.
- Avoid outdoor exercise in extremely cold weather.
If you’re spending more time indoors to avoid this cold weather...
...you need to be mindful of indoor asthma triggers that can make you feel poorly. Keeping your asthma well controlled is the best way to reduce your likelihood of reacting to any indoor triggers. Have a look at our healthy indoor environments page to see what you can do make your surroundings as asthma-friendly as possible.
Can I get more personalised advice on coping with the cold and my asthma?
You can talk directly to an asthma nurse specialist on the Asthma UK Helpline, open weekdays from 9am to 5pm on 0800 121 62 44.
You might not know that thunderstorms can trigger serious asthma attacks in people with asthma, especially children and young adults. Thunderstorms have been associated with an increase in asthma attacks, with large numbers of people needing to go to A&E.
It is not fully understood why this happens, but it is thought during a thunderstorm, the windy conditions cause high levels of pollen and mould spores to be swept up high into the air where the moisture breaks them into much smaller pieces. As the pollen and mould particles then settle back down, these smaller pieces of pollen and mould can be breathed into the smaller airways of the lungs where they irritate the airway and trigger asthma symptoms.
Not all thunderstorms trigger asthma. Small local storms after a hot day are not thought to be triggers. The humidity before the storm must be high enough that the grass pollen or mould spores are released and can survive in the atmosphere. Grass pollen is higher in June and early July. Mould spores are released from crops during harvesting in later July and August. It is also thought that if ozone levels are high, the lungs may be more sensitive to triggers.
It is more likely to be a problem for children who have hay fever and are allergic to pollen and mould spores. If your child is experiencing asthma symptoms, they could be more at risk of asthma attacks triggered by thunderstorms. However, it can also lead to asthma attacks in children who usually have mild asthma and even in children who have hay fever but who have previously not had asthma.
Tips on how to protect against 'thunderstorm asthma'
- Make sure your asthma and hay fever is well managed during the summer season, making sure you are taking the right amount of medicines properly so you have no asthma or hay fever symptoms.
- Make an appointment with your asthma nurse or doctor just before the summer season to check that you are on the correct amount of asthma and hay fever medicines, and that you are using them properly.
- Be aware of pollen, air pollution levels and weather forecasts. Click here to check these.
- If a thunderstorm is expected, try to stay indoors and keep the windows closed.
- Keep your reliever near by at all times.
- Know how to recognise if your asthma is getting worse and when to call for help. A written personalised asthma action plan will have all of this information in it.
- Make sure you know what to do in an asthma attack and have a 'what to do in an asthma attack' card handy to help remind you what to do.