Ways to Help with Winter Inversion and Asthma

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Aaron Kobernick, MD, MPH with the University of Utah joined Emily Clark on ABC4 Utah to talk about how Salt Lake’s inversion affects asthma and allergies and what folks can do about it.

The inversion keeps air rich in particulate matter close to the valley floor, particularly PM 10 and PM 2.5.  These cause direct injury to the human lungs and inflammation that can last weeks, even with a single day exposure.  That inflamed lung goes into a sort of “protective mode” and can exacerbate asthma and allergy substantially, even exponentially.

If you seem to cough in the cold it’s because cold, dry air can cause wheezing. The job of your upper airway is to humidify and warm the ambient air so that it is suitable for gas exchange (CO2 for O2).  When the air is very cold and dry, your upper airway tends to clamp down, slow the flow of air so that it can humidify and warm, and also you will produce mucous, which assists with humidification of ambient dry air.

The problem in asthma is that the upper airway takes mucous production and clamping down too far – so that wheezing and difficulty breathing ensues.  This reaction to cold, dry air, can be worse for some people when exercising, which makes sense because you’re breathing more rapidly and deeply.

We need exercise, we need sun, fresh air, our hobbies, etc.  So, of course, we should go outside.  In the pandemic, outdoor activities have a lower risk of contagion as well. Keep an eye on the AQI, and on the worst days, try to get out of the valley for recreation.

There are some indoor hazards when it comes to allergies and asthma that are dependent on the environment. Indoor woodsmoke exposure is a known precipitant of asthma, and for those who heat their home with wood, ensuring proper ventilation is key. For those with allergy, sensitization to mold, dust mites and animal dander can be a problem that intensifies symptoms during the winter and indoor months.

There is certainly evidence that pollutants may prime the lung for more severe infection. This is a concern with COVID, although we don’t have specific data yet. Suffice it to say: if you get COVID, you want to be starting with healthy lungs.

For more information, you can contact the University of Utah Allergy clinic at (801) 581-2955 or visit their website.

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