Ask the Expert: Could cold air freeze my lungs?

Runners

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Q: I started running seriously this summer and absolutely love it. I prefer running outside and I would like to continue training outdoors during the winter months, provided this doesn’t put my health at risk. My concern is that when I exert myself in the cold, I often get a burning sensation in my lungs and I cough after the workout. Friends tell me running in cold weather could freeze my lungs. Is that possible? – Concerned

A: Dear Concerned, congratulations on discovering the joy of running. There are many myths about the dangers of cold weather running, including the risk of freezing your lungs. Research has shown that people can train in temperatures even colder than minus 50°C without damaging their lungs. Our bodies are designed to function in cold weather, and regardless of the temperature, we have mechanisms that ensure the air we breathe in is at body temperature and humidified when it reaches our lungs.

While inhaling cold air won’t damage your lungs, it can irritate your airways and cause bronchospasms. You might experience a burning sensation in your airways, shortness of breath, chest tightness and coughing. As air gets colder, it tends to get drier. So the body needs to work hard to not only heat but also to humidify the air you inhale. Inhaled air is humidified by water donated from the cells that line your airways. When these cells get dehydrated, they become irritated, and you experience bronchospasm.

Try the following strategies to reduce your risk of irritating your airways:

  1. Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Your nose heats and humidifies inhaled air better than your mouth.
  2. Wear a scarf, balaclava or ski mask over your nose and mouth. This helps trap heat and humidity when you exhale.
  3. Ensure you are well hydrated for your workouts.
  4. Schedule your runs for the warmest time of the day.
  5. Progressively increase your training intensity as tolerated.

Bottom line: There is no risk of freezing your lungs running anywhere on Earth. Your symptoms suggest you may have bronchospasms, so you may benefit from trying the strategies mentioned above. If your symptoms persist, you may need to be medically assessed.

Exercise is medicine!

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