Cold-Weather Tingling, Shortness of Breath May Mean Serious Illness

Pain or numbness in cold weather may signal serious illness.

ByABC News via logo
January 19, 2010, 6:59 PM

Jan. 20, 2010— -- Hypothermia and frostbite are common hazards associated with severe cold, but while cold weather can cause discomfort that can be easily remedied with a trip to the pharmacy, it can also trigger previously undiagnosed deadly diseases and sometimes serious medical problems.

Dr. Marie Savard, "Good Morning America's" medical contributor, visited the show today to talk about how you can protect yourself and recognize warning signs.

It's not unusual for cold air to cause spasms in the lung airways, making it harder to breathe. But for some people, cold air can trigger an asthma attack, which may be how the asthma is detected for the very first time.

Signs of weather-induced asthma include coughing and wheezing and an inability to catch your breath.

One way to combat these symptoms is to use a Proventil inhaler before you head outdoors. It will relax the spasms that strain the flow of air into your lungs. Check with your doctor to see if using an inhaler is right for you.

Another solution: wear a muffler or scarf around your mouth and nose. It will warm the air that you take into your lungs, which will keep your airway open.

Chest Pains Could Be Serious

If you feel chest pain when you are breathing cold air, tell your doctor immediately because it could be a sign that you have a heart condition. Just as cold air constricts the lung muscles, it can cause arteries to constrict and raise your blood pressure. For someone with an undiagnosed heart condition, simply breathing in cold air can lead to chest pain.

Even minimal exertion outdoors could trigger a heart attack, Savard said. Tell your doctor if you feel chest pain, shortness of breath or any chest discomfort or tightness in the cold.

If you already have been diagnosed with heart disease and you get chest pain in the cold, you should talk to your doctor about whether you should take a nitroglycerin tablet about 15 to 20 minutes before you go outside in winter weather.