Why Do You Gasp for Air on a Cold Winter’s Day?

Winter running - Young woman running outdoors on a cold winter d

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I live in South Dakota where the winter days can be frigid and very dry. Many people, including me, have difficulty breathing while exercising in the winter because our airways temporarily narrow during exercise. This condition is called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), formerly known as exercise-induced asthma, and it’s often triggered by working out in cold, dry air.

Scientists believe it’s the dryness of the air breathed in and the quality of the air, not the coldness, that cause the airways to narrow. The lungs have a number of defense mechanisms and reflexes to protect the small airspaces from dry air and particles in the air. The extensive network of airways moistens and warms inhaled air so that by the time the air arrives at the gas-exchange areas—where oxygen enters the blood and carbon dioxide leaves—it is humidified and the same temperature as the body. The airways are lined with mucus that helps catch inhaled particles through its stickiness. The airways also can constrict to prevent particles and dry air from getting farther into the lungs. Narrowing causes problems, however, because less air reaches the gas-exchange areas, preventing the body from getting enough oxygen.

How can you tell if you have EIB? You will experience one or more of the following symptoms, which last 10 to 15 minutes after you’ve finished exercising:

  • shortness of breath or wheezing,
  • decreased endurance,
  • tightness in the chest,
  • cough,
  • upset stomach and
  • sore throat

While 90 percent of people with asthma have EIB, not everyone with EIB has asthma. You’ll need to see an allergist to determine whether your symptoms are solely exercise-induced, are a reaction to irritants in the air or are indications you have asthma.

EIB doesn’t have to keep you from exercising in the winter. In fact, many elite cross-country skiers, world-class figure skaters and ice hockey players have EIB. Here are some suggestions from the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology to relieve your symptoms:

  • Warm up with gentle exercises for 15 minutes before starting intense exercise.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a scarf or face mask.
  • Try to breathe through your nose.

Medicine that widens the airways can also be prescribed to help prevent your symptoms and attacks. I try not to take a deep breath when I go outside on a cold South Dakota winter day. Then, I head out on a four-mile walk with my golden retriever.

Barb Goodman, PhD

Barb Goodman, PhD, FAPS, is a professor of physiology at the University of South Dakota.

2 thoughts on “Why Do You Gasp for Air on a Cold Winter’s Day?

  1. Pingback: Bring on Winter! (But Stay Safe and Healthy) | I Spy Physiology Blog

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