Why Asthma Symptoms Can Vary With The Weather
So why do asthma symptoms seem to get worse with every change in the weather? Although it seems confusing, there are some annual trends, as well as reasons why asthma symptoms are worse at particular times of the year.
For example, severe asthma episodes tend to peak during the autumn months, especially among children. A 2001 study that examined tens of thousands of asthma hospitalizations in Canada over a 12-year period, for instance, found that there were more than twice as many hospitalizations in October as there were in July or August. Other studies have discovered similar patterns.
However, one study conducted in Detroit found that when there was a rapid 10-degree rise in temperature or a 10% rise in humidityas can happen in spring and summerhospitalizations for children with asthma increased in the next day or two.
In truth, asthma symptoms can flare at any time of year due to well-known asthma triggers, such as pet dander, secondhand smoke, and exercise. But knowing the triggers that can vary by seasonsuch as pollen, temperature, humidity, pollution, and virusescan help people with asthma figure out if they should be stepping up their medication.
In fact, the main culprit is believed to be cold-and-flu season, which kicks into gear once kids head back to school. Classrooms filled with runny noses, and grimy hands are breeding grounds for cold and flu viruses, which schoolchildren inevitably spread to their families.
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How Does Air Temperature Affect Asthma
Because asthma involves the airways, the air you inhale directly affects asthma symptoms. These symptoms are determined by different aspects of the air, including temperature and humidity.
Sudden changes in air temperature can trigger asthma. For example, a sudden change can occur if its hot outside and you enter a cool building.
Specifically, extreme air temperature and high humidity can worsen asthma.
Study Examined Relationship Between Thunderstorms And Copd Asthma Symptoms
In a recent article published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers analyzed Medicare claims from 1999 to 2012 to study whether storms led to an increase in respiratory illness-related emergency room visits in patients with obstructive lung disease. The study included 46,581,214 patients over 65 years old who had 22,118,934 emergency room visits due to respiratory complaints. Obstructive lung disease was a diagnosis in 43.6% of the patients, and included asthma , COPD , and combined asthma and COPD .
The researchers used meteorological data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to identify the dates when thunderstorms occurred. The NOAA database covers the continental US and includes data relating specifically to storms: windspeed, lightning, precipitation, and temperature. It also includes information on pollen and common air pollutants including small particulate matter , nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and carbon monoxide.
Watch The Weather And Seek Allergy Treatment
Rain can be a good thing for pollen allergies. But you can have too much of a good thing. Next time the showers rain down, be grateful for the temporary relief. If the rains keep pouring down, watch out for a spike in mold, dust, and weed and grass pollen soon after.
You can manage your allergies and allergic asthma by visiting a board-certified allergist to help you manage your symptoms and by tracking the weather and pollen on these sites:
Accuweather/AAFA personalized respiratory forecast Visit Accuweather.com for a personalized asthma forecast for your area. Enter your location. Then from the Personalized Forecasts drop-down menu, choose Respiratory. The Accuweather/AAFA forecast will show asthma alerts along with your forecast. The page also includes tips from AAFA on managing weather-related asthma issues.
National Allergy Bureau Sign up to receive email alerts or download the app from the AAAAI to alert you of your areas pollen counts.
Many treatments are available to help you manage your pollen allergies, no matter what the weather does. AAFAs annual Spring Allergy Capitals report provides insights into cities where people are most affected by spring allergies. to see where your city ranks.
Medical Review July 2017, updated May 2018
What Can I Do To Protect Myself This Pollen Season
Epidemic thunderstorm asthma events are uncommon and dont occur every year. However, its important for everyone in south-east Australia to know about epidemic thunderstorm asthma and what they can do to help protect themselves if an event does occur.
Everyone in the community should also know the signs and symptoms of asthma, and know the 4 steps of asthma first aid so they know what to do if someone is having an asthma attack.
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Why Is Cold Weather Hard On People With Asthma
- Wild weather: Winter often brings rain, wind and fluctuations in air pressure, even for those in mild climates. Rainy and windy weather can stir up mold spores and barometric pressure changes can trigger sinusitis. These can also cause asthma flare-ups.
- Illnesses: Colds, flu and viruses are common in winter and can lead to more inflammation of your airways. Such illnesses thicken the mucus in bronchial tubes and make it harder to breathe. This can worsen symptoms or cause asthma flare-ups.
- Time spent indoors: When the weather is cold, you may stay inside longer with the windows closed and the heat on. And you may be exposed to more indoor allergens, irritants and respiratory viruses. For example, you could be at risk for an asthma flare if your symptoms are triggered by dust, mold or pet dander, or cigarette smoke if theres a smoker in the house.
Protecting Yourself If You Are At Increased Risk Of Thunderstorm Asthma
All people at increased risk of thunderstorm asthma should:
- Learn about thunderstorm asthma and what they can do to help protect themselves during grass pollen season.
- Where possible, avoid being outside during thunderstorms from October through December especially in the wind gusts that come before the storm. Go inside and close your doors and windows, and if you have your air conditioner on, turn it to recirculate.
- Have an asthma action plan and know the 4 steps of asthma first aid.
- Have reliever medication appropriately available in grass pollen season and be aware of how to use it .
- Be alert to and act on the development of asthma symptoms as explained in your asthma action plan if you have one, or if you dont, use asthma first aid.
- Check the epidemic thunderstorm asthma forecast during the grass pollen season at VicEmergency.
In addition to the above bullet list, take the following precautions as relevant.
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How To Deal With Asthma And Fall Allergies
If pollen is a trigger for your asthma, then the fall is likely to be a challenging season for you, especially if you also have allergic rhinitis . If this is the case, you’re in good company: Around 80% of adults and children who have asthma also have hay fever, as compared to 15% to 40% of the general population.
With pollen from ragweed and other allergens on the rise, you may be at an increased risk of asthma attacks in the autumn. You can mitigate this risk by preparing for the season by taking antihistamines and being especially strict about adhering to your asthma management strategies.
Checking The Air Quality
The air quality index indicates the daily level of pollutants, such as smog. Air quality levels vary daily and between locations. The more pollutants in the air, the harder it can be for a person with asthma to breathe.
The AQI measures air quality on a scale from 0500. The higher the number, the worse the air quality. Air quality tends to be worse on hot and humid days. Staying inside when the air quality is poor might prevent asthma symptoms developing.
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Autumn The September Epidemic
The September epidemic, as children return to school and bring with them as well as encounter increased levels of germs, viruses and bacteria, can be the start of a difficult period for asthmatics. It is recommended that asthma sufferers ensure they are vaccinated against flu, as although they are not more susceptible to viruses than the general population, their inflammatory condition means that their immune systems struggle to recover at the same rate as non-asthmatics. This leads to prolonged illness which can result in hospitalisation.
Recognising Hay Fever Symptoms
View the Hay fever and thunderstorm asthma page for the transcript.
Around one in 4 people with hay fever also have asthma, and it is important to recognise that pollen can trigger asthma as well as hay fever symptoms.
People with hay fever may experience one or more of the following common symptoms:
- runny nose
- itchy, watery eyes.
These symptoms mean that a persons eyes and upper airways are affected. Hay fever does not include symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath or chest tightness, which are asthma symptoms.
If you have hay fever and also develop symptoms such as wheeze, shortness of breath or chest tightness, see your GP.
Manage Your Risk Of Thunderstorm Asthma
Managing your risk of thunderstorm asthma is so important for people with asthma. To help here are are some ways you can manage your risk
- Learn about thunderstorm asthma and determine whether or not you are at risk
- Talk to your doctor about the need for inhaled preventer medicine and appropriate treatment for your allergies, including hay fever.
- Have a written Asthma Action Plan and/or have practical knowledge of the 4 steps of Asthma First Aid
- Have reliever medication available and with you at all times in grass pollen season and be aware of how to use it
- Be alert to and act on the development of asthma symptoms as explained in your written Asthma Action Plan if you have one, or if you dont, use Asthma First Aid
- Be aware of thunderstorm forecasts particularly on HIGH or EXTREME pollen count days and where possible avoid being outside during thunderstorms in the grass pollen season especially in the wind gusts that come before the storm. Go inside and close your doors and windows and if you have your air conditioner on, turn it to recirculate. For thunderstorm asthma forecasts and alerts in Victoria go to the Vic Emergency website.
- Never ignore asthma symptoms like breathlessness, wheezing and tightness in the chest. Start Asthma First Aid immediately and call Triple Zero for help if symptoms do not get any better or if they start to get worse.
For up-to-date pollen levels in each state, check our website here or visit the relevant site below:
Your Asthma Weather Report
Common weather triggers that can aggravate asthma symptoms include:
- Cold air. Frigid temperatures can be an asthma trigger. Cold air seems to predispose people with asthma to have more symptoms, says Fineman. Cold air can cause constriction of airways, says Todd Rambasek, MD, an adult and pediatric allergist at ENT and Allergy Health Services in Cleveland, Ohio. For people with asthma, this can be a dangerous problem.
- Wind and rain. Rainfall can increase and stir up mold spores, and wind can blow around pollen and mold.
- Heat. In the summer months, increased ozone from smog, exhaust fumes, and pollutants tend to be higher and can trigger asthma symptoms.
- Lightning. Thunderstorms, which can generate ozone, are now thought of as an asthma trigger.
- Air pressure fluctuations. Barometric pressure triggers sinus episodes, and sinusitis is a common trigger for asthma symptoms, says Dr. Rambasek.
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How Can You Avoid Asthma Attacks In The Cold
To prevent asthma attacks, try to stay indoors when the temperature dips very low, especially if its below 10°F .
If you do have to go outside, cover your nose and mouth with a scarf to warm the air before you breathe it in.
Here are a few other tips:
- Drink extra fluids in the winter. This can keep the mucus in your lungs thinner and therefore easier for your body to remove.
- Try to avoid anyone who appears to be sick.
- Get your flu vaccine early in the fall.
- Vacuum and dust your home often to remove indoor allergens.
- Wash your sheets and blankets every week in hot water to get rid of dust mites.
Here are some ways to prevent asthma attacks when you exercise outdoors in cold weather:
- Use your inhaler 15 to 30 minutes before you exercise. This opens up your airways so you can breathe easier.
- Carry an inhaler with you in case you have an asthma attack.
- Warm up for at least 10 to 15 minutes before you work out.
- Wear a mask or scarf over your face to warm the air you breathe in.
Why Does Humidity Affect Asthma
Humidity likely causes asthma symptoms because it triggers bronchoconstriction, which is a narrowing of the airways.
Bronchoconstriction may occur because hot, humid air activates C fibers, which are sensory nerve fibers in the airways. Stimulation of C fibers may narrow the airways and stimulate coughing, which makes it difficult to breathe.
High humidity levels create the perfect breeding ground for mold and dust mites, which often trigger asthma. Higher levels of humidity may also increase air pollution. For example, ozone, which is an air pollutant, rises when humidity levels increase.
Increased levels of humidity also often mean higher temperatures. The highest humidity levels usually occur during the summer months. The combination of heat and humidity can irritate the airways making breathing more difficult.
While it is not possible to control the weather and humidity levels outdoors, people can manage humidity-related asthma symptoms by:
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Tips For Managing Weather Changes & Asthma
Monitor your local air quality index using a weather website or app
Limit outdoor exercise when the air quality is poor
Cover your nose and mouth when outdoors in cold weather
Use a humidifier or dehumidifier to keep humidity levels around 30-50% in the home
Keep windows closed and use an air conditioner
Protecting Yourself If You Have Hay Fever
If you have hay fever, understand that you are at increased risk of asthma, including during an epidemic thunderstorm asthma event. If you think you may have symptoms of asthma, for example if you wheeze, are short of breath or cough with your hay fever, then talk to your GP about determining whether they could be related to asthma.
If you have hay fever only, see your GP or pharmacist about a hay fever treatment plan and what you can do to help protect yourself from the risk of thunderstorm asthma. This may include having an asthma reliever puffer appropriately available these are available from pharmacies without a prescription.
If you develop asthma symptoms, follow the 4 steps of asthma first aid and make sure you follow up with your GP.
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When You Can’t Avoid It
If you’re running a race or you have to run in a downpour for another reason, set yourself up to get out of that wet, cold clothing as soon as possible. Stash dry clothing in a plastic bag and put it in your running backpack or in your car, where it will be ready for you right after the race.
Your best judgement is key here if the rain is so bad that you’re going to be soaked in a matter of a few minutes, chances are your body temperature is going to drop too low to make running outdoors worth the effort.
Protecting Yourself If You Have Asthma
View the Asthma first aid page for the transcript.
If you currently have asthma, make sure you have regular reviews with your GP about your asthma to ensure that you have the right asthma medication, know how to use it properly and that you have good control of your asthma. It is also important that you have an asthma action plan and that you see your GP to ensure that it includes advice for thunderstorm asthma. Always carry your reliever medication with you this is your emergency asthma first aid medication.
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Are There Risks
While there is no conclusive evidence that says running in the rain will make you sick, there are still risks involved with running in the rain. Studies have shown that lowering a person’s body temperature may make them more prone to contracting viruses through the methods of transmission named above. In other words, it’s the coldness, not the wetness, that may make you more susceptible to succumbing to a virus, or worse, hypothermia, says the University of Wisconsin.
In some areas, the rain may be caused by excess pollution in the air which could put you at risk of upper respiratory distress or an asthma attack. Rain also means wet conditions, which increases your risk of slipping and falling. Drivers are also less likely to see you in a rain storm, so the risk of getting hit by a car also increases. While that won’t make you sick, an injury could sideline you from running.
Are You At Risk
People at risk of acute asthma flare-ups triggered by a thunderstorm include those with:
- seasonal hay fever,
- a history of asthma or
- undiagnosed asthma.
The risk of thunderstorm asthma is highest in adults who are sensitive to grass pollen and have seasonal hay fever . The worst outcomes are seen in people with poorly controlled asthma. Take the Asthma Control Test to determine your level of asthma control.
To reduce the risk of thunderstorm asthma where it is a known trigger, it is recommended to aim for optimum asthma management year-round. This means
- Optimising preventer use during spring thunderstorm season
- Controlling hay fever
- Checking pollen levels and avoiding exposure to pollen on these days where possible.
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