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Warming up to Winter: Challenges of Cold Air

Winter officially made its first “real” appearance of the year where I live (enough for me to pull my boots out of the crawl space!). It was still the kind of winter-ness that I was resisting wearing gloves and was almost too warm in my light-ish winter jacket, except it was cold enough in some patches to make my phone shut off. Whether it was the swing from unseasonably warm to cool-ish (it is only -1°C with the windchill, or 30°F) or that at that point in time it was actually colder than that (highly likely), my lungs didn’t get super tight but they were mildly annoying on my walk to the bus at nine o'clock this morning.

Seriously, lungs. This is Winnipeg.

I am not wearing a scarf when it is not even cold.

Everybody has a different threshold for their tolerance of cold air

Everybody has a different threshold for their tolerance of cold air—my friend in Israel has said at 10°C (50°F) that her lungs start acting up which, as a Canadian, blows my mind because we are ready to bust out the shorts over here at that temperature. Which I think, actually, goes along with the whole thing: if we all find different types of cold appropriate for different types of clothing, for example—because I have totally gotten the “Uh, it’s only 15°C (59°F), you’re wearing shorts?” skepticism before!—then it should not be surprising that our lungs respond with differing levels of uproar to different levels of cold—or, simply carry on like nothing has happened despite the cold, for some lucky people!

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I’ve often been curious how I might respond to a cold air challenge test, in which you inhale chilled air rapidly in a laboratory setting (such as would be likely to occur when walking or performing physical activity outside) and pulmonary function tests are done before and after to assess your lungs response to cold air. I’ve subjectively noticed that my lungs react most to the cold air at temperatures of -10°C (14°F) or colder (today was atypical): -10°C to -20°C is the temperature that the air is in cold air challenge tests1 —although given the environment in which I live five or six months of the year, it seems silly to go to a lab to inhale cold air when I could just do my own self-challenge! (Note: this is neither scientific nor recommended!)

Cold air also seems to impact me a bit differently than other triggers

By the time I headed home this afternoon around 2:30, I was super close to wanting to just ditch my jacket (although my hands were still cold and my phone kept shutting off, so I guess it was not that warm). But my lungs were back acting like the temperature wasn’t 10°C (50°F) colder than it was just a few days ago. Cold air also seems to impact me a bit differently than other triggers, in that it often induces dyspnea that seems to wax and wane for quite awhile (read: hours) afterwards—all triggers do this from time to time, but it seems to me like this is a contributor to why my asthma may be consistently worse in winter. Further reasons I may never understand asthma!

Early November is when I usually start getting caught off guard by cold air—I guess I was lucky to stave it off until mid-November. Now, just to remember how to winterize my lungs again: by wearing a scarf or mask, and pre-medicating if I’m going to be out for any prolonged length of time!

Yeah, easier said than done!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The 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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