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Why Breathing Cold Air Hurts Your Lungs

Colder weather can irritate your airways, though there are many ways to protect your lungs.

Editor’s note: This article was updated from an earlier version originally posted in December 2019.

Once you start seeing your breath in the mornings, it’s a sign to pay extra attention to maintaining good health, particularly with your lungs.

Some people find that breathing cold air hurts their lungs in the winter months. According to pulmonologist Dr. Michael Scharf, inhaling cold air may cause bronchial irritation and cough. If you have asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the cold air “may induce bronchial tightening or constriction leading to cough, wheeze and shortness of breath.”

The cold air isn’t the only culprit affecting your breathing. People tend to spend more time indoors during the winter. Closed doors, tightly sealed windows and heating systems can create poor indoor air quality, leading to an increase in indoor allergens.

Women bundled outside in the cold

Protecting your lungs in the winter
While building a snowman with your kids or shoveling the driveway this winter, be sure to keep the air temperature entering your lungs warm. To do this, Dr. Scharf recommends that you wear a scarf around your nose and mouth, during the COVID -19 pandemic, you may already be doing this. You should also perform some light exercises to warm your muscles and get your heart pumping before venturing outside.

Planning a skiing trip to the Poconos this season? It’s equally important to protect your lungs at high altitude. That’s because there is lower pressure of oxygen available for breathing. Thus, the lower pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere at high altitude may lead to lower oxygen in your blood.

If your body isn’t getting a constant level of oxygen circulating in the blood, then it “can be dangerous for people with cardiac or pulmonary disease such as coronary artery disease, COPD or pulmonary hypertension. Such individuals may develop angina or chest pain or extreme shortness of breath requiring supplemental oxygen,” Dr. Scharf points out.

For allergy and asthma sufferers who are stuck indoors, try using a HEPA air filter to properly circulate the air and trap the allergens that affect your breathing.

Dr. Michael Scharf

Pulmonary hypertension: What is it?
The cold weather can also affect people with pulmonary hypertension. Dr. Scharf, who specializes in the condition and is director of Jefferson’s Pulmonary Vascular Disease Program, explains that it’s a disease of the small blood vessels in the lungs causing your blood pressure to become elevated. The tightening or thickening of the blood vessels in the lungs makes it difficult to pump blood through the lungs leading to shortness of breath, chest discomfort, lightheadedness or fatigue. Pulmonary hypertension patients may eventually develop heart failure.

Often, people with constriction of the pulmonary blood vessels may have constriction of the small vessels in their fingers or toes when exposed to even cool temperatures. This can lead to Raynaud’s phenomenon, wherein you develop purple toes or fingers that upon warming, turn white then return to their usual pink color.

Pulmonary hypertension is usually caused by cardiovascular disease. However, the more rare forms include those that are due to

  • Heredity
  • An unknown cause (idiopathic)
  • Weight loss or recreational drugs
  • Scleroderma, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Advanced liver disease
  • Blood clots in the lungs, also known as Pulmonary Embolism
  • Sleep apnea
  • HIV infection

Managing pulmonary hypertension
Prior to 1995, pulmonary hypertension patients lived on average less than 3 years after diagnosis. Now, new treatments have improved survival rates and quality of life, according to data from the Pulmonary Hypertension Association.

At the Korman Respiratory Institute/National Jewish Hospital, our pulmonary medicine specialists offer seamless evaluation of pulmonary hypertension patients by conducting echocardiograms, exercise tests and breathing tests. If you need other specialists to work together on your condition, the treating pulmonologist will arrange the necessary consultations.

To effectively manage your condition, Dr. Scharf suggests:

  • Maintaining a low salt diet
  • Exercising for 20 to 30 minutes daily, even if it’s just walking. This keeps the heart and other muscles strong even if the pulmonary hypertension may not be able to be entirely reversed.
  • Getting your flu shot; a respiratory infection may lead to low blood oxygen and worsening of this condition.
graphic of tips to manage pulmonary hypertension

Additionally, Jefferson has among the largest sickle cell disease and scleroderma programs in the country, which translates to well-coordinated care for your condition. Our doctors are also involved in two clinical trials for pulmonary hypertension:

  • ADVANCE Study – Evaluating a once-daily prostanoid pulmonary hypertension pill
  • A DUE Study – To start with two pulmonary hypertension pills vs. one pill only at the time of diagnosis

Independent research is also being conducted to assess the role of telehealth in managing patients with pulmonary hypertension and the success rate of outpatient follow-up in patients hospitalized for acute pulmonary embolism.

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