Brrrreathing in the Cold

Being in North Dakota we experience sub-zero temps every winter how do we protect our lungs?

You step outside of your house and it hits you……that bitterly cold air. It makes your lungs burn and your nostrils sting. For many of us, it’s simply uncomfortable, but for others such as those with asthma or COPD cold air can cause wheezing and shortness of breath.

So, what’s really going on in our airways when we are out in the sub-freezing temperatures?

Our airways are lined with a thin layer of liquid called airway surface liquid (ASL). Inhalation of cold air causes the ASL to evaporate, thus drying the airway and leading to irritation. This irritation can lead to coughing, airway constriction, and lessen our defenses against viral and bacterial infections.

What can we do to protect our lungs?

Here’s Seven Ways:

Keep the air coming into your lungs warm by covering your nose and mouth with a scarf, neck gaiter, or mask.

Breathe in through your nose. Nasal breathing helps warm cold, dry air before it enters the lungs.

Ease the transition from the indoor to outdoor environment by doing a light indoor warm-up before performing outdoor activities. The reverse is true as well, allow your breathing to return to normal before returning indoors after being active outdoors.

Avoid setting your thermostat too high. A warmer indoor environment leads to more drastic adaptation when transitioning to the outdoors.

If you suffer from respiratory disease, make sure you have your prescribed medication readily available when spending time outdoors.

Lastly, exercise indoors or decrease the intensity of outdoor exercise when temperatures drop.

It’s important for our mental and physical health to get outside and get fresh air even in the winter. Just as we protect our skin from frost bite, we should be protecting our airways from the cold.


Milanowski, A. (2021, August 27). How Cold Weather Can Spell Trouble for Your Heart and Lungs. Cleveland Clinic.

D’Amato, M., Molino, A., Calabrese, G., Cecchi, L., Annesi-Maesano, I., & D’Amato, G. (2018). The impact of cold on the respiratory tract and its consequences to respiratory health. Clinical and Translational Allergy, 8(1).

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