Reasons for Coughing After Cold-Weather Exercise

Exercising in cold weather can lead to coughing, as the cold air causes airways to tighten and constrict. If you've recently had a cold or other respiratory illness, you may still have congestion, which is exacerbated by exercise in cold weather. But the most common cause of coughing after exercising in cold weather is asthma. By identifying the reason you cough after exercising in cold weather, you can take preventive measures to reduce this side effect.

Woman using an inhaler Credit: 4774344sean/iStock/Getty Images

What Is Asthma?

Asthma is an inflammatory disease in which lung passageways are blocked due to muscular contractions, swelling or excess mucous. Individuals subject to asthma attacks can be triggered by irritants such as smoke, strong odors, pollen or pet dander. However, exercise and cold weather are also common asthma triggers. While exercising in cold weather, individuals prone to asthma may experience constriction in the chest, wheezing, shortness of breath or coughing -- which is your body's attempt to clear your bronchial passages.

Mouth Breathing and EIB

Some individuals suffer from exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, or EIB. With this condition, symptoms appear within five to 20 minutes of exercise. According to the Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, mouth breathing can be the cause of EIB. During nose breathing, air is filtered, removing many allergens -- such as pollen and dust -- from the air you breathe. Nose breathing also conditions air with moisture before it enters your lung passageways. When you breathe through your mouth, water loss from airway surfaces can trigger the release of pro-inflammatory agents, which cause bronchoconstriction. Another cause of EIB can be cooling of airways through hyperventilation during exercise, leading to constriction as air passageways warm up.

Cold Weather and EIA

Individuals with a pre-existing asthma condition may have asthma attacks triggered by exercise -- called exercise-induced asthma, or EIA. In "Exercise-Induced Asthma," Mariana Shedden, M.S. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D. indicate that hyperresponsiveness to asthma triggers is more common in athletes who train in cold weather. Athletes who frequently train in cold-weather conditions may develop EIA, even when they have no prior history of asthma, because continued exposure of your lung passageways to cold air can damage airways.

What You Can Do About It

If exercising in the cold triggers coughing and an asthma attack, you may need to switch your routine to indoors during cold weather. You might benefit from swimming, since the moist environment of the pool may help you breathe easier. When you go outside in cold weather, wrap your face in a scarf and breathe through the scarf. This warms up the air you breathe and protects your airways.

Your doctor may advise you to take medication before you work out to help avoid an asthma attack. Warming up for 15 minutes before you go outside to exercise, by jogging in place or riding a stationary bicycle, also helps prevent coughing and wheezing after exercise.

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