Is Cold Air Dangerous For My Lungs?

How To Deal With Cold Air and Breathing

Dear Dr. Mahler:

I have had COPD for about 4 years and live in Mankato, Minnesota, where it gets very cold during the winter months. I try to go outside most days, but I am worried that the cold air will bother or hurt my lungs. It always seems harder to breathe when it is below zero. During other times of the year, I am quite active. My inhalers include Bevespi twice a day and Ventolin for rescue. What are your thoughts?

Debra from Mankato, MN

Dear Debra,

Breathing in cold and dry air can irritate the breathing tubes, particularly if you have asthma or COPD. Typical symptoms are cough, shortness of breath, and even feeling as if your lungs “hurt.”

There is no evidence that the lungs actually freeze if someone breathes in cold air. The nose and mouth are built to warm and humidify cold and dry air before this air reaches deep into the lungs.

Here are some tips for dealing with cold air and your COPD.

  1. Place a scarf over your nose and mouth or wear a cold weather face mask. A scarf helps to lock in warm air that you are exhaling. In addition, the common cold virus replicates more rapidly in your nose when bathed by cold air.
    Person wearing scarf shows how to deal with cold air and breathing

    Woman using scarf over mouth to keep in warm air that is exhaled

    An alternative approach is to purchase a cold weather mask as shown below. Wearing a face mask will keep your mouth and nose from the cold and wind. Masks are often made of water and wind resistant neoprene shells and feature breathing holes that are used to easily allow air passage to where your mouth is. Make sure to choose a face mask that’s lined with fleece that will provide comfort and warmth to your skin.

    Wearing a face mask will keep your mouth and nose from the cold and wind. Masks are often made of water and wind resistant neoprene shells and feature breathing holes that are used to easily allow air passage to where your mouth is. Make sure to choose a face mask that’s lined with fleece that will provide comfort and warmth to your skin.

    Man wearing a cold weather face mask in Toronto

  2. Pre-heat your car or truck. If possible, ask a family member to start the vehicle for a few minutes before you go out.
  3. If you use oxygen, place your oxygen tubing inside your coat to keep it warm. The cold temperature may stiffen the tubing, possibly reducing the flow of oxygen.
  4. Minimize exertion outdoors when it is cold. See if someone else can carry your oxygen system and any packages.
  5. Drink a warm glass of tea, coffee, or cocoa when you return home. This will help to “warm you up.”

Debra – I hope that these simple “tips” are helpful to you dealing with cold air. Keep active indoors during the winter months.

Please note, the advice provided is not a substitute for asking your health care professional about your specific situation.

Best wishes,

Donald A. Mahler, M.D.

 

The Perils of Hookah Smoking: Results of New Study

Light-use, Hookah Only Smokers Have Symptoms and Reduced Lung Function

Background: The hookah, also called a waterpipe, shisha, or narghile, is used for smoking fruit-flavored tobacco by millions of people worldwide. Tobacco is placed in a bowl surrounded by burning charcoal. When the smoker inhales, air is pulled into the bowl holding the tobacco. The resultant smoke is bubbled through water, carried through a hose, and inhaled. It typically includes tobacco products equivalent in a single bowl waterpipe session over 45 – 60 minutes to one pack of cigarettes together with carbon monoxide and charcoal components.

Hookah in restaurtant in Nepal

Hookah in restaurtant in Nepal

Components of a hookah

Components of a hookah

While hookah smoking is commonly associated with the Middle East, the use of waterpipes is becoming more common in the United States. For example, 9 – 20% of young adults in the US report that they have used waterpipes, and hookah “bars” are common in many US cities. Many smokers believe that the water filters “toxins” from the smoke, making it safer than smoking cigarettes. However, this is a myth.

Study: Researchers from the Weil Cornell Medical College studied 19 never smokers and 21 self-reported hookah smokers only from the general population of New York City by posting advertisements in local newspapers, eletronic bulletin boards, and waterpipe bars. All subjects answered questions, performed breathing tests, had a high-resolution CT scan of the chest, and had samples obtained from the lower breathing tubes by bronchoscopy (having a scope passed into the mouth and deep into the lungs). The study was published in the September 1, 2016, issue of the American Journal of Respiratory & Critical Care Medicine.

Findings: Compared with nonsmokers (average age = 33 years), the waterpipe smokers (average age = 25 years) had: more cough and sputum (mucus); reduced transfer of gas across the air sacs and blood vessels (called the diffusing capacity); and abnormal cells in the lower lung.

Conclusions: Young. light-use, hookah only smokers have multiple lung abnormalities suggesting that even limited use can have serious consequences.

My Comments: Two factors have increased  the popularity of hookah or waterpipe smoking among school-aged children and young adults throughout the world. One is the introduction of different flavors (lemon, apple, orange, cherry, etc.). Two is as the belief that waterpipe smoking is safe as it filters all noxious substances because it passes through water.

Studies have compared the effects of a single session of waterpipe smoking with smoking one cigarette. The inhaled smoke volume is 123 times greater with hookah smoking and is associated with 2.3 times more inhaled nicotine and 25 times more inhaled tar.

Once again, any type of smoking can damage the lungs and should be avoided for lung health.