If you have asthma and a job that keeps you outside during chilly weather, dressing in layers and using sun protection aren’t the only precautions you need to take before heading off to work. Breathing cold air can trigger an asthma attack and be every bit as harmful to your health as inhaling pollen, dust, fumes, gases and other common irritants.
Asthma causes the airways and lungs to become constricted and inflamed. This causes wheezing, coughing and an overproduction of mucus that makes breathing difficult. In people who are sensitized, inhaling cold winter air (often drier than at other times of the year) can trigger an asthma attack because, like other irritants, it also makes the airways shrink. A flare-up is especially likely during periods of physical labor and exercise as air is inhaled more quickly, causing a rapid loss of heat and moisture from the airways and lungs.
What should you do about cold weather and asthma?
“Any construction worker working outdoors during cold weather can be at increased risk,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Just as you dress in layers to protect yourself from hypothermia and use sun protection to guard against skin cancer, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk for a cold weather asthma attack.”
These steps include:
- Taking your asthma medication 10-15 minutes before you leave the house.
- Wearing a winter face mask or scarf over your nose and mouth and breathing through your nose. This helps warm and humidify the air before it reaches your lungs.
- Keeping your inhaler with you at all times and close to your body to help keep it warm. Warm medication is more easily absorbed by the body. Put your inhaler in your shirt or pants pocket.
- Speaking to your health care provider if you are experiencing difficulty breathing related to the cold. It may be necessary to adjust your medication.
During cold weather, it’s also a good idea to use a humidifier in your home to replenish the moisture in the air that gets lost when the furnace runs. This is particularly important in your bedroom.
Asthma affects 28 million Americans and Canadians. This includes approximately 1.9 million cases of adult asthma in the U.S. caused by workplace exposures.
Asthma is also a top cause of missed school days for children and is responsible for more than 14 million missed workdays for adults every year.
Asthma kills more than 3,600 people in the U.S. every year. The annual cost of asthma in the U.S. is about $56 billion.
Respiratory infections like colds and flu are also common asthma triggers so being vigilant about washing your hands and getting an annual flu shot are essential. Asthma also increases the risk for pneumonia if you do get the flu, so ask your health care provider if you should also get a pneumonia vaccination.
Working in cold weather is taxing, but with awareness you can reduce your risk for an asthma attack and the other threats to your health that increase when temperatures fall.
The LHSFNA has developed materials that focus on keeping LIUNA members healthy during cold weather, including Preventing Cold Stress in Construction and our Cold Stress in Construction Health Alert. Order them by going to the Fund’s website at www.lhsfna.org and clicking on Publications.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]