Cold Air Precautions

Living as I do in the frozen wastelands of the northern US, I've seen a lot of bitterly cold winters. We're not Arctic cold, but we experience seasonal temperature swings that require some preparation and forethought. If you're just visiting, you'll probably spend most of your time inside a comfortable building, but getting stuck outside can be dangerous.

Winter travel preparations have been covered here before; check the archives by using the search box in the upper left corner. This post, however, is about a small thing that can make a big difference in your comfort and health. The best part is that you probably already have the equipment, or you can get it for free.

Humans have built-in systems to help preheat and moisturize cold, dry air in our nasal passages, but they can get overwhelmed in extreme weather. The beard and mustache you see in my picture are helpful insulation for my face and neck, but only provide minor help with breathing cold air. 

Those of us who live in areas with cold winters get acclimated over a few weeks of dealing with it, but if you're dropped into it without that time to adjust it can be painful. The human body is mostly water (roughly 70%) so when the really cold air settles in and the humidity follows the temperature to the bottom of the bulb, we lose heat and moisture, aka water, just by breathing. If it's cold enough that you can see your breath, you're losing water.

Winter air hitting your lungs can dry out the lining and cause poor oxygen transfer, often causing panting, coughing, or wheezing. Cold air will also cause your airways to tighten or “constrict”, reducing airflow. Lungs don't like cold air; it's not what they were made to handle. Strenuous activity in winter air will tax your airways and can lead to bronchitis, or make you really miserable if you have asthma or COPD.

The simplest thing you can do to take the edge off of the cold air entering your body is to wear a scarf or mask over your mouth and nose. I have family that have COPD and limited lung function as a result of lung cancer, so I have seen what has worked for them and what hasn't.

  • The cloth masks that everyone has hanging from their rear-view mirror or stuffed in the glovebox for when they have to wear one to gain entrance to a store will trap some of the heat and moisture of your exhaled breath and transfer it to the next inhalation. 
    • The flat paper surgical masks aren't as effective as a close-fitting cloth or N95 dust mask, but are better than nothing.
  • Thin, woven scarfs are better at keeping your face and neck warm but will freeze over faster. 
  • A thick, knitted scarf will work longer than any mask because it has more surface area for frost to build up on.  
  • The old-fashioned ski masks and balaclava are time-tested and efficient, but make you look like a bank robber. 
 I work outside in all weather and have a few wool scarves that I keep handy this time of year. The old Army-issue wool scarves are harder to find now, but they are medium-thick and loosely woven so they are a good middle ground option that works for many situations (even if they are ugly as sin, according to my wife). If you have a crafty friend, or even knit yourself, wool is the best option since it will insulate even when wet.

We've had a fairly mild winter so far this year, but it's not over yet and there's always next year to think of. I may be transferring to a different job which will mean more outside work and travel in the crappiest weather, so my winter preps are getting extra attention.

Staying hydrated in the winter is another subject that we've covered, so I won't repeat the details. The simplest hydration check is to observe your urine color: the clearer it is, the better. Drink water until you have to pee and keep drinking even if you're not thirsty.