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The Deal with Cold-Weather Runs and Coughing
Does lacing up in frigid temps have you hacking like a chain smoker? Learn more about weather’s impact on your lungs, and what experts say will get you through the winter season.
You want to be rewarded with sweat, endorphins and a hearty sense of pride after running in the cold. But what you get, more often than not, is non-stop wheezing, coughing and burning in your chest.
Your hacking could be the result of a lingering cold, asthma (exercise and cold weather are common triggers) or upper respiratory illness, but odds are, it’s due to something known as exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB).
“Exercise-induced bronchospasm is caused by the narrowing of airways during physical activity, which makes it more difficult for air to pass through, and thus more difficult for you to breathe,” explains Alexandra Kreps, M.D., a primary care physician and internist at Tru Whole Care in New York City. “Rapid breathing can make the bronchial tubes even drier and lead to increased narrowing and restriction of airflow.”
While the condition is not cold-weather specific, it is often exacerbated by winter temperatures because cold, dry air causes your airways to tighten and constrict even more, says Sasan Massachi, M.D., a primary care doctor specializing in internal medicine in Beverly Hills, CA. “Cold air also dries out the lungs and inhibits the mucociliary clearance, which is the self-cleaning function of the airways in the lungs that removes pollutants and irritants.” (Translation: It makes it harder to blow snot rockets on your run to clear out your nasal passages so you can breathe again.)
While EIB is often used interchangeably with exercise-induced asthma (EIA), the two conditions are not the same. “The development of bronchospasm after exercise is on the spectrum of asthma diseases, but it needs to be treated on its own,” says Michael S. Niederman, M.D., Clinical Director and Associate Chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. “EIB can be a stimulus to worsen asthma in patients who have it, but there are some people who don’t have asthma and still develop bronchospasm with exercise in cold, dry air.”
Dealing with the Run-Cough
Let’s be honest: A little coughing isn’t going to keep you from logging your miles. But there are ways to lower your odds of doubling over wheezing when you get home. The next time you are headed out the door for a run, consider warming up your lungs first. “Your lungs will react if there is a sudden and drastic change in temperature,” says Shuhan He, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Cambridge, MA. “The more drastic the change, the bigger the chance of your lungs contracting, especially if you go from a warm environment to extreme cold.”
To give your lungs time to adapt to the hot-cold swing, rocking the right running gear is super important, and that doesn’t just mean insulated jackets and running sneakers with high traction soles. Consider wearing a scarf or balaclava over your mouth and neck for at least the first 10 minutes, helping the air heat up before entering your body. “This will act as an insulator to raise your body’s temperature and it will warm the cold air before it enters into your lungs,” says Dr. He.
Also, practice deep breathing through your nose, rather than short, rapid breaths through your mouth. “Inhaling through your nose and exhaling out your mouth may help, since the cold air has to travel a longer distance to reach your lungs, while your nasal passage and trachea can help warm and moisten it,” says Dr. Kreps.
Check out a few more strategies to control your coughing and make running in the cold suck less.
1. Stay Hydrated
Drinking fluids isn’t just a hot-weather thing. Staying hydrated throughout winter is key for cough prevention. “It helps ensure that the cells in your lungs have enough moisture to humidify the cold and dry air that you breathe in,” says Dr. He. In turn, this can help thwart the irritation that leads to hacking. To make sure you are drinking enough, grab a measured water bottle so you can track your sips accurately.
2. Go Easy
During cold-weather months, save your harder running efforts for the treadmill. Here’s why: “Higher intensity exercise, like intervals or tempo runs, leads to greater ventilation and in turn more respiratory heat loss,” says Dr. Neiderman. As a result of exhaling all that hot air, he says, the cold air you suck in can feel twice as irritating to your lungs and airways, possibly making your cough worse.
3. See a Doctor
If your coughing persists even when temps are milder, or you can’t seem to kick it after several minutes back indoors, make an appointment with your doctor or a lung specialist. It’s likely no big deal, but being evaluated by a health care professional can help determine if there is an underlying condition that needs to be addressed, says Dr. Massachi.
Not to mention, getting to the root cause of your coughing or wheezing will help get you back on the track to focus on more important things, like reaching that elusive runner’s high.