Bayhealth patient outside in winter exhaling warm breath

Effects of Dry Winter Air and Indoor Heating on our Respiratory Health

Seasonal Tips, Ears, Nose, Throat

Temperatures are dropping outside and heat is pumping inside. Have you ever thought about how these two extremes affect your respiratory health? Pulmonary Medicine Specialist Nanda Din, MD, explained that the upper respiratory tracts, including the nose and throat, are lined by membranes which are normally moist. Dry winter air can make those membranes very dry. Dr. Din explains how this can impact your respiratory health and some important tips to remember.

Dryness of the membranes in the nose and throat causes them to lose their ability to prevent dust, viruses and bacteria from entering into the lungs. “This is one of the reasons why risk of colds, sinusitis, flu, and upper respiratory tract infections are higher in winter,” said Dr. Din. “Dry air can also give an uncomfortable itchy sensation in the nose and throat. In addition, nosebleeds can happen with extremely cold, dry winter air.”

Measures can be taken to minimize the harmful impact of dry air in indoor spaces during winter. One way is to use a humidifier. The ideal humidity level is between 30 and 50 percent. Too much humidity can trigger growth of harmful molds, bacteria and dust mites. Dr. Din emphasized the importance of keeping the humidifier clean so that it does not become a source of germs spewing into the house. He also advised using nasal saline spray or gel to prevent dry nose and nasal congestion.

People with existing respiratory conditions need to be particularly careful this time of year. “Those with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are more sensitive to cold air and can develop flares of their respiratory conditions in winter. These individuals should follow up with their primary care and respiratory physicians in advance of winter months in order to optimize respiratory medications,” Dr. Din said. “I also advise them to avoid staying outside too long in severely cold weather, which can hurt their respiratory tract and lungs. If you’re on a bronchodilator you should use it about 30 minutes before going outside to prevent airway irritation and constriction from cold air, and carry it with you whenever you go out.”

Toxic indoor air is also a major threat to respiratory health. Indoor heating systems such as wood stoves, gas water heaters and central heating systems with furnaces and chimneys have the potential to be a source of carbon monoxide poisoning if misused. For this reason, Dr. Din said that checking the indoor heating system and doing proper maintenance annually is a must. In homes with a forced-air heating system, the air filter should be changed regularly.

While people may be inclined to keep the heat inside, Dr. Din said a little fresh air can still be beneficial. “Opening windows for about 10-15 minutes each day, even during cold winter time, will help circulate fresh air inside the house, which can provide a balance that is good for your respiratory health.”

If you’re in need of a pulmonary medicine physician to help maintain your respiratory health, visit Bayhealth.org/Find-a-Doctor or call 1-866-BAY-DOCS (229-3627) to be matched with a specialist.