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Why Breathing Cold Air Can Hurt

Why do my lungs seem to burn when running in cold temperatures? This is a common question, especially among new runners or those running in cold weather for the first time. The lungs have evolved to warm and humidify inhaled air to body temperature and humidity without damaging tissue.

Think of the respiratory system as a tree; with two main branches splitting off from the trunk and then splitting into smaller and smaller branches until the tiny branches sprout leaves. Turn the tree upside down and shrink it to chest size and you have the lung with the trachea as the trunk and the alveoli (air sacks) as leaves.

The warming and humidification of the air occurs quickly starting in the mouth and nose, reaching body temperature and 100 per cent humidity before the air gets too deep into the respiratory tree. As air moves deeper into the air sacks that lie in direct contact with the blood vessels, it exchanges oxygen for carbon dioxide. While inhaled air is cooling the lung tissue, the expired air adds some heat back to the cooled tissues on the way out of the lungs.

Cold air is very dry. The burning sensation you feel in cold air is probably due to the combination of heat and water exchange that is occurring early in the inhalation of cold, dry air. For most people, this sensation goes away after a few minutes and it is not known to cause harm in healthy lungs, but can trigger an attack of bronchospasm in someone with asthma.

Many people worry that the lung tissue will freeze in cold air, but the extensive network of blood flow through the lung tissue seems to prevent that from happening.

As research tells us, the lungs will tolerate extremely cold temperatures without cold damage.

Growing up and living in England, we are used to cold weather, and as kids, that didn’t stop us from running around outdoors without damage. There are many year-round runners in places far colder than the temperatures we have to live with. Evolution seems to have developed a hardy system that will withstand the cold elements.

If cold air bothers you during exercise, you can wear a scarf or snood/buff type piece of clothing to help “pre-warm” the air. There are many designs to be found on the internet that can help. Just beware that covering your mouth and nose during exercising will make breathing feel harder due to breathing through a layer of material.

So, no excuses; you can exercise in cold conditions without fear of damaging your lungs, and the burning sensation will pass.

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