How Snowstorms May Affect Your Asthma

So we just missed the big one promised to dump 4-6 inches of snow in Tulsa. I call it the 2023 winter “dud”. My wife was really pissed that we didn’t have snow to disrupt all of our daily activities. No snow day for you! Even if we didn’t get snow this time around, what about the next unpredictable snowstorm for asthma patients?

For many people with asthma, cold weather can trigger an asthma attack. The air is colder and drier in winter, which can irritate the lungs and trigger asthma symptoms. But what about snowstorms specifically? Is there anything about a snowstorm that makes it more likely to trigger an asthma attack? Let’s take a closer look.

As always, let’s go to the medical literature for answers on cold weather effects on asthma.

Villeneuve PJ, Leech J, Bourque D. Frequency of emergency room visits for childhood asthma in Ottawa, Canada: the role of weather. Int J Biometeorol. 2005 Sep;50(1):48-56. doi: 10.1007/s00484-005-0262-6. Epub 2005 Apr 22. PMID: 15846521.

The aim of this study was to evaluate associations between meteorological conditions and the number of emergency department visits for asthma in a children’s hospital in Ottawa, Canada. A case-crossover study design was used. Hospital emergency department visits for asthma between 1992 and 2000 were identified based on patients’ presenting complaints. We obtained hourly measures for the following meteorological variables: wind speed, temperature, atmospheric pressure, relative humidity, and visibility. Particular emphasis was placed on exploring the association between asthma visits and fog, thunderstorms, snow, and liquid and freezing forms of precipitation. In total, there were 18,970 asthma visits among children between 2 and 15 years of age. The number of visits and weather characteristics were grouped into 6 h case and control intervals. The occurrence of fog or liquid precipitation was associated with an increased number of asthma visits, while snow was associated with a reduced number (P<0.05). Stratified analyses by season found no association in any of the four calendar intervals between the number of asthma visits and visibility, change in relative humidity and change in temperature. In contrast, summertime thunderstorm activity was associated with an odds ratio of 1.35 (95% CI=1.02-1.77) relative to summer periods with no activity. Models that incorporate calendar and meteorological data may help emergency departments to more efficiently allocate resources needed to treat children presenting with respiratory distress.

My literature search revealed 62 articles using “snow” and “asthma” as search terms and only 1 article that didn’t talk about allergy to the snow crab in fishing communities. Even though we would like to think snow storms cause asthma, it’s probably the summer thunderstorms that bring on asthma attacks. Guess we’ll have to wait until June! You should still be cautious during cold weather even if you don’t have asthma and here’s why.

The Cold Air
One of the main reasons why cold weather may trigger an asthma attack is because cold air is drying. When the air is dry, it can irritate the lungs and make it difficult to breathe. This is especially true for people with asthma because their airways are already sensitive. In addition, cold air is often accompanied by high winds, which can also dry out the lungs and make it difficult to breathe. In other words, if you want to go sledding, cover your nose and mouth to avoid excessive cold air.

The Snow
Another reason why snowstorms may affect asthma is because of the snow itself. When snow falls, it often picks up pollutants from the ground and carries them into the air. These pollutants can include car exhaust, chemicals from factories, and even bacteria and viruses. If you have asthma, breathing in these pollutants can irritate your lungs and trigger an asthma attack. It’s beautiful to walk outside during a snowfall…unbelievable “quiet” as the snow falls; you can almost here the snowflakes hit the ground. But don’t kid yourself, it traps pollutants reserved for you to breathe into your lungs. Protect your airways by keeping up with inhaled preventive medications and cover your mouth during cold weather hikes.

Snowstorms can be beautiful—but if you have asthma, they can also be dangerous. That’s because cold weather and snow can both trigger an asthma attack. If you have asthma, it’s important to take steps to protect yourself during a snowstorm, but summer thunderstorms deserve the same precautions. This includes dressing warmly, staying indoors as much as possible, and keeping your rescue inhaler close at hand. By taking these precautions, you can help reduce your risk of having an asthma attack during a snowstorm. Hopefully, in 2023 we’ll have a snowstorm that you can try out your new found skills in winter management.

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