Spring may be just around the corner, but Seattleites know that doesn’t necessarily mean warmer weather right away. (Juneuary, anyone?) For people with asthma, this means your condition could be exacerbated by winter’s leftovers even though there isn’t much pollen in the air yet.
Colds and the flu, which are more common this time of year, can also trigger asthma, as can changing weather conditions and exercising in cold weather. Other triggers are indoor allergens like dust and mold that most of us spend more time with while avoiding the rain and dreariness outside.
How to handle cold-weather asthma
The combination of these triggers can spell trouble for someone with asthma, says Marion Pepper, Ph.D., an immunologist who studies asthma and works in the immunology department at the UW School of Medicine.
Pepper also has two daughters, Lucy and Izzy, who have suffered from asthma. She’s seen how their symptoms sometimes worsen in the cold.
“Recently, Izzy had a cold; it was probably some minor virus, but I could see it was starting to tighten up her lungs,” Pepper says.
If you or your child’s asthma symptoms flare up in cold weather, handle it as you would during any other season: Set up a detailed asthma plan with your primary care provider. For Pepper’s daughter, this means having both control and rescue inhalers handy. Make sure your child knows to alert you if their symptoms worsen. Symptoms include things like shortness of breath, chest tightness and wheezing; if symptoms are more severe, people may have trouble talking or sleeping and should immediately seek medical help.
Research shows promise
In her lab, Pepper studies the body’s adaptive immune system, the part of the immune system that learns to recognize threats and remembers how to respond to them. Sometimes, this response is excessive, as when the immune system treats harmless things like pollen or dust as threatening and triggers an immune response that causes the symptoms of allergies or asthma. Pepper hopes that, by learning more about the immune system’s memory, she and her colleagues can prevent the immune system from forming memories that prompt it to attack unnecessarily.
“Maybe if I hadn’t had kids who had asthma, I wouldn’t have been inspired to go into this research and know just how debilitating it can be,” she says.
The future of asthma
Her work could become even more pressing: Asthma has been on the rise, especially in children. Recent research from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that, while asthma deaths are thankfully decreasing, more people are getting asthma. Prevalence of the condition worldwide rose by nearly 13 percent in 2015.
What’s more, asthma symptoms could worsen due to global warming. A warming climate can lead to weather changes, like frequent wind and forest fires, which can trigger asthma; not to mention the effects of air pollution and emerging respiratory viruses.
Luckily, Pepper’s daughters are able to still live happy, active lives even with asthma. She hopes her work will make that reality possible for even more people.