A woman wearing winter clothes, repeated in different positions, including coughing, feeling her throat, and breathing visible breath into her hands

Managing Asthma Through the Winter

Last updated: July 2023

If you have allergic asthma, you might think the winter would be your best season. No pollen in the air and the outdoor mold spores so prevalent through the fall have finally dispersed.

But actually, I've found that winter can still be quite challenging when it comes to maintaining asthma control. In fact, winter is when I notice my asthma symptoms the most.

Let's take a look at why this might be true.

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Indoor Allergens

Unfortunately, when the weather is cold, and in some places, snowy, you'll tend to spend more time indoors. And for sensitive people, indoor allergens can be just as bothersome allergy and asthma triggers as outdoor allergens.

Indoor allergens include:

  • Dust mites
  • Animal allergens
  • Indoor molds
  • Insect and mouse allergens

What You Can Do About Indoor Allergens

Well, of course, avoidance of allergens is always the goal. But total avoidance is almost impossible. Still, you can take steps to limit your contact with indoor allergens. Here are a few tips. 1

  1. Keep the house as dust-free as possible. Vacuum or sweep frequently, wearing a HEPA-filter mask if needed. Bare floors are better than carpeting for limiting build up of dust mites. Wash your bed linens weekly in hot water, and use an allergen-proof pillow and mattress covers. Dry your linens in a hot dryer.
  2. Limit your contact with pet allergens. The best way to do this is to keep pets out of the bedroom and off your furniture. With dogs and cats, it's their dander (dead skin flakes) and saliva that are the trigger, so brushing them can help. So can keeping them from licking you or the furniture. If you have caged animals such as rabbits or guinea pigs, urine is the more likely trigger, so have a non-allergic person clean out the cage often.
  3. Keep your house mold "unfriendly." Mold and mildew thrive in warm, humid areas, such as bathrooms, kitchens and basements. Be sure to repair any leaks. Using a dehumidifier can help reduce moisture in damp areas. Running exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathroom, especially while cooking or showering, will help as well. If mold does form, wash it away thoroughly with water and detergent, or bleach if necessary.
  4. Discourage critters from entering your home. Be sure to block all areas where insects or rodents could enter your home. This would include crevices, wall cracks and windows. Keep your food in containers with lids. Put away pet food as soon as your pets are done eating. Take out garbage regularly, and keep it in a lidded container when it's inside. Keep the kitchen clean: no dirty dishes left lying around, wipe off stoves and counters, etc.

Outdoor Allergens in Warmer Climates

If you live in an area that never gets really cold for very long during the winter months, then you may still have to deal with outdoor pollen and molds throughout much of the year. Or, if you live in an area with mountain cedar trees, such as central Texas, you could also be exposed to pollen in the winter. Cedar trees typically pollinate during the early winter months.

What You Can Do About Outdoor Allergens

  • Watch the pollen counts and stay indoors when counts are high, if you can.
  • Don't hang clothing outdoors to dry where it can gather pollen and mold spores.
  • Shower and wash your hair after being outdoors to get rid of pollen.

Indoor Irritants

When you're spending more time indoors, you may also be exposed to substances that can irritate your airways and trigger asthma attacks. This includes both tobacco smoke, as well as the smoke from fireplaces and wood stoves. It could also include strong fumes from burning candles, incense and air fresheners.

Plus, when you run your heater, it can stir up indoor allergens, especially dust mites.

What You Can Do About Indoor Irritants

If you live with a smoker, getting them to smoke outdoors, away from the entrances, is your best bet. At the very least, try not to spend much time in any room where they smoke indoors.

If you use a fireplace or wood stove in your house, avoid sitting close to it. The smoke from those fires, though it may seem natural, can be just as irritating to your airways as tobacco smoke.

Be sure to clean and replace the air filter on your furnace at the start of every season and then regularly thereafter.

Cold, Dry Air Outside

Going outdoors in the winter time, especially if I'm exercising, is when I notice my asthma symptoms the most. This is because of breathing in the cold, dry air outside. Experts are not sure exactly why this triggers asthma symptoms, but it does. 2 It could be that the cold air irritates the airways or causes them to spasm. 3

What You Can Do About Cold, Dry Air Outside

The easiest way to deal with this is to stay indoors, but who wants to stay in all winter? Especially if you're like me and enjoy winter sports like skiing, snowshoeing and hiking. The good news, is you don't have to!

  • Warm up before you go out. You're less likely to feel the shock of going out in the cold if your body is already warmed up.
  • Wear a scarf, neck gaiter or face mask. This will help warm the air you're breathing in. (This makes a big difference for me.)
  • Take a puff or two of your quick-relief (rescue) inhaler 15-30 minutes before you go out. This is a technique used by people who have exercise-induced asthma to open up their airways. Be sure to check with your doctor about this first.

Upper Respiratory Infections

Another reason people with asthma sometimes find asthma control slipping in the winter is because they've caught a respiratory infection like a cold or the flu. More of these germs are around during the winter, and you're more likely to be exposed to them since you're spending more time indoors. 4

What You Can Do About Respiratory Infections

Your best protection is to get your yearly flu shot every fall, preferably before the end of October. 5 Getting the flu can be bad news for someone with asthma, as it further irritates your already inflamed airways.

Also, do your best to stay away from people who you know are sick. When you are around other people, especially in public places, wash your hands well with soap and water. This is the best way to prevent the spread of cold and flu viruses. You can also use hand sanitizer.

A Few More Tips to Stay Healthy

Each person who has asthma needs to figure out what triggers affect them in the winter. It may be a slightly different combination for each of us. Here are a few more things you can do to work on staying healthy:

  • Update your Asthma Action Plan in coordination with your health care team, and share it with anyone who needs to know about it. That way, if you do get sick, you'll know what to do about it before your symptoms get out of control.
  • Make sure your prescriptions for any and all of your asthma medications are kept up to date and refilled. And then be sure to use your daily controller medicine and always have your rescue inhaler close at hand.
  • Drink extra fluids during the winter time. This helps to keep the mucus in your lungs thinner and easier to cough up.

It might take a little more effort to keep your asthma under control in the winter. But hopefully, if you use the tips in this post, you'll get through the season without too much trouble.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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