Frigid temperatures and winter conditions are an obstacle when trying to maintain a regular workout routine, but those obstacles don't need to be roadblocks.

Cold air is often dry, and for many people, especially those with chronic lung disease, that means extra precautions. Luckily, there are steps everyone can take to keep your lungs healthy and safe throughout the winter season.

How Cold Air Affects Your Lungs

Inhalation of cold, dry air often irritates the airways. This can happen in individuals with healthy lungs, especially when the air is particularly cold and dry, and when the amount of air breathed in and out is increased while participating in exercise outdoors.

For some people with asthma or Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, being active or exercising outdoors is challenging. According to Dr. Albert Rizzo, senior medical advisor to the American Lung Association, the airways in these patients are already in an inflamed state. The irritation of the cold dry air causes the lungs to react, resulting in more inflammation, the muscles around the airways constricting and narrowing and more mucous clogging the airways. People with asthma or COPD describe this as feeling short of breath or having a tight or burning feeling in the chest.

Preparing For Your Workout

Runners may need to worry about frostbite on their nose and cheeks, but they are not in danger of "frostbitten lungs". Even in the most extreme temperatures, the air we breathe reaches body temperature by the time it gets to our lungs. However, it is still recommended that you wear a protective layer or scarf over your nose and mouth to warm and humidify the air when you breathe, lessening the potentially irritating effect on the airways.

Remember to breathe through the nose rather than the mouth when possible. Your nose warms and humidifies incoming air more effectively than the mouth does.

Individuals with asthma or COPD can and should participate in exercise and activities, as regularly as possible. They should, however, be conscious of a number of factors. Dr. Rizzo recommends keeping the following tips in mind as you head outside:

  • Take daily controller medicines as directed and always have a quick-relief inhaler available to use at the first sign of symptoms, especially when exposed to asthma triggers, such as cold air. 
  • Before you venture outdoors for cold air activities, use your quick-relief inhaler about 20-30 minutes prior to the activity. This is a good tip before doing any activity that may trigger your asthma.
  • In extreme cold conditions, consider exercising in a gym, at home or walking in a climate controlled environment instead of outdoors.

"The important thing is to try to maintain your activity level and exercise schedule for many health reasons," says Dr. Rizzo. "Those with asthma just have to pay attention to potential triggers and take some precautions."

As an extra safeguard, keep others informed of your activity plan and whereabouts in case of emergency. Don't hesitate to stop activity and use your quick-relief medicine as soon as you begin to have symptoms.

Also remember that with cold weather comes cold and flu season. Getting a chill can make a person more susceptible to a respiratory infection, so remember to dress warmly and keep your feet and head covered when out in the cold.

Regular exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle, even if you have chronic lung disease. The right amount and type of activity has many benefits. Be sure to ask your doctor before you make changes to your exercise routine.

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