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Dr. Darrell Menard: Could cold air freeze my lungs?

Ask the Expert – Could cold air freeze my lungs?

Article by: Dr. Darrell Menard – former PEO at RMC

Dr. Darrell-Menard

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 people can train in temperatures in excess of minus 50°C without damaging their lungs. Our bodies are designed to function very well in cold weather and regardless of the temperature we have mechanisms in place that ensure the air we breathe in is body temperature and 100% humidified when it reaches our lungs.

While inhaling cold air won’t damage your lungs, it can irritate your airways and cause what is referred to as bronchospasm.  When this happens you can experience a burning sensation in your airways, shortness of breath, chest tightness and cough.  As air gets colder it tends to get drier and 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.  Some people are much more susceptible to this happening than others.

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

  1. Your nose heats and humidifies inhaled air better than your mouth – try breathing in through your nose and out through 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; and
  5. Progressively increase your training intensity as tolerated;

The bottom line: There is no risk you will freeze your lungs running anywhere on Earth.  You can however get frost bite if you don’t dress properly.  Your symptoms suggest you have bronchospasm which may be helped by employing the above strategies.  If your symptoms persist you may need to be medically assessed.  Exercise is medicine!

Dr. Darrell Menard OMM MD, Dip Sport Med

Dr. Menard is the Surgeon General’s specialist advisor in sports medicine and has worked extensively with athletes from multiple sports.  As part of the Strengthening the Forces team he works on injury prevention and promoting active living.

Strengthening the Forces is CAF/DND’s healthy lifestyles promotion program providing expert information, skills and tools for promoting and improving CAF members’ health and well-being.

2 Comments

  • Stephanie Ochej

    November 29, 2018 at 1:52 pm

    Interesting read! I didn’t know about this (though I’m not sure I would have ever worried about my lungs freezing).

    Checked out a few articles and all is working for me on my phone (using Google Chrome)!

  • 11088 Howard Hisdal

    November 29, 2018 at 6:48 pm

    Has Dr. Darrell Menard actually tried running at minus 40 degrees centigrad? I have been on winter warfare training exercises in places such as one exercise north of Great Slave Lake at minus 40 degrees for two weeks. I would not advise running soldiers in full Arctic military kit, rifle and backpack, on snowshoes at minus 40 degrees. Some of them will breathe in through their mouths. Doing this to yourself is one thing, doing it to soldiers is quite another. I have met a former soldier who was run by his officer at this temperature and who was invalided out of the Canadian Forces with chronic lung problems.