Donya Currie is the editor of The Free Lance-Star's Healthy Life section and Healthy Life Virginia newsletter.

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Asthma in the winter

I put on my black ski  mask today and took my dog for a walk, knowing I’d get a few double-takes. My friends call it my bank robber mask. It’s pretty sinister looking, but it’s my most valuable tool against winter asthma flare-ups.

This time of year, people with sensitive lungs have to take extra precautions to protect themselves against breathing problems, chest tightness and the kind of cough that can make your ribs ache. A mask can warm the air before you breathe it in, cutting the risk of cold air causing a flare-up.

What else can help asthmatics this time of year? I asked Dr. Andrew Kim of the Allergy and Asthma Center of Fredericksburg, and he responded with an e-mail full of advice. Here’s the condensed version of his helpful tips:

  • Get a flu shot. Viruses (whether from a cold or flu) exacerbate asthma symptoms. “Flu vaccine is the single most effective way to prevent flu related asthma attacks,” Kim wrote.
  • If you’ve been prescribed an inhaler to prevent asthma symptoms on a daily basis, use it every day, as prescribed, even if you think you’re fine.
  • Create a winter asthma action plan. Know your triggers—such as cold air, allergies or exercise. Know the symptoms of a problem—such as coughing, wheezing or chest tightness. And talk to your physician about what to do if your symptoms flare, or if, after using your “rescue” inhaler, the symptoms linger or worsen.
  • Minimize time spent outside. “Cold air is particularly irritating for the asthmatic lung,” Kim wrote. If you have to be outdoors in the cold, cover your mouth and nose with a mask or scarf to warm the air before you breathe it in. (Trust me, it’s better to get odd looks wearing a ski mask than to strain muscles in your chest wall by coughing all night.)
  • Wash your hands a lot. Again, viruses can make life miserable for asthmatics, and frequent hand-washing is critically important to protect yourself from viruses. “Cold and flu viruses may live for hours and days on common contact surfaces. So for example, [if] someone sneezing into their hands … touches the door knob or the keyboard, the cold virus can be picked up by the next person touching the same door knob or keyboard,” Kim wrote.
  • While pollen and mold counts go down in the winter, indoor allergens such as dust mites and animals may trigger flare-ups. Your doctor can give you tips for minimizing those triggers if they’re a problem for you.