Why breathing cold air can hurt your lungs

Woman breathing cold air during winter

If you’ve ever stepped outside on a chilly day and felt suddenly breathless or like you’ve had the wind knocked out of you, then you know just how much harsh winter weather can affect your lungs. But it’s not the chill in the air that’s causing you to feel this way, it’s the humidity—or lack thereof. “Cold air is dry…there is less humidity in the air,” explains Andrew P. Pitman, MD, a pulmonologist at Main Line Health. “Our throats and noses are coated with a very thin layer of fluid but, when we step outside, the cold air automatically draws in that moisture and moisture from our skin and hair.”

As a result, we’re left with scratchy throats and dry noses. Drier air is also to blame for bloody noses, dry skin, static cling and fly-away hair—some common (but less serious) winter weather woes.

Breathing cold air can worsen respiratory issues

For most people, dry skin and dry airways are easily solved with moisturizer and some hot tea or throat lozenges. It’s not this easy for everyone, especially those who have asthma, cold-induced asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other recurrent respiratory issues like bronchitis, pneumonia or sinusitis. Without taking the proper precautions, people with respiratory issues can end up sidelined—and even hospitalized—by coughing, wheezing or shallow breathing.

“Dry air can aggravate respiratory conditions so, if you have one or have a history of sickness or hospitalization, it’s important to take extra precautions,” says Dr. Pitman. This means:

  • Avoiding indoor and outdoor pollutants – A fire might make you feel warm and cozy, but it can also irritate your lungs. Stay away from chimneys/fireplaces and people smoking cigars or cigarettes.
  • Making your health a priority – Continue taking prescription medications, make sure you’re current on seasonal and age-specific vaccinations and carry a rescue inhaler with you, if you have one.
  • Cover your mouth and nose – Use winter weather gear to protect your airways. Before you step outside, use your jacket, scarf or gloves to cover your nose and mouth and protect in from a rush of cold air. If you have portable oxygen, keep it under your coat to prevent it from being affected by the cold.
  • Exercise indoors – Keep your fitness routine indoors, especially on very cold days.
  • Wash your hands – In addition to dry air, it’s easy to contact a cold or the flu during winter months, which can irritate respiratory issues. Wash your hands thoroughly and often with soap and warm water.
  • Check the weather – You can’t spend the entire winter season indoors, but you can avoid going outside on especially brisk or windy days. Take a look at the forecast each week and try to determine what days are best for errands or appointments.

Another tip? Don’t turn your thermostat up too high. “During winter, we’re constantly alternating between the warmth of our homes or offices and the cold weather outside. This is a shock to our bodies, and can deplete it of moisture,” says Dr. Pitman. “If the temperature inside is under your control, keep it at a moderate level so that your body—and lungs—aren’t constantly adjusting to opposite temperatures.”

Can’t ‘breathe easy?’ It may be a sign of respiratory disease

If shortness of breath, wheezing, congestion, trouble swallowing or other respiratory symptoms are making daily life uncomfortable, it may be a sign of respiratory disease. Main Line Health pulmonologists are dedicated to helping you breathe better and improving your quality of life. Visit one of our expert pulmonologists, located throughout the Philadelphia region.

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654).