We’ve all been there. You’re heading out for a run on a crisp, cold winter morning, ready to hit the trail and get in a great workout, only to end that glorious run with a coughing fit.
What’s the deal with this sudden bout of coughing that you seemingly can’t stop? Roy Artal, a board-certified pulmonologist based in Los Angeles, says this is pretty common, particularly this time of year.
In the past, Dr. Artal explains that this phenomenon used to be referred to as exercise-induced asthma. Today, it’s more often explained as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction. “It is basically hyper reactivity of the airways where the airways tighten or constrict during exercise and people then can feel a tightness in their breathing or a loss of lung capacity that can often manifest with coughing,” he says.
While we might assume the cold air is the main contributor, a study from the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology found that dry air is much more of a factor than temperature. “Cold air typically contains less moisture than warm air, and quickly breathing dry air dehydrates the bronchial tubes, causing them to narrow and restrict airflow,” the study found.
This sensation most frequently occurs in dry climates, but other triggers can be things like pollutants in the air, strong perfumes in an indoor setting, or even the dry air of a sauna-like hot yoga studio. Dr. Artal says that many people will typically only experience this in the winter when working out outdoors on a run or strenuous hike. “Cold, dry air in particular is a trigger,” he says. “A lot of people may not have the symptoms when running in the summer in Jackson, Mississippi, but will have symptoms in the winter in Jackson, Wyoming. And for those people, the remedy might be as easy as switching your workout to the indoors during the winter months.”
For more persistent problems with post-workout coughing, there are medications and treatments available, Dr. Artal says. So if you’re having consistent symptoms that regularly get in the way of your favorite activities, it’s definitely worth seeing a physician, he says. Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction shouldn’t stop your ability to push yourself in the way you want to. “We should all do what we want to do with exercise and do the activities we want to do, whether it is summer or winter,” he says. “If you aren’t able to meet that litmus test, then go talk to your doctor.”
But overall, a little bout of coughing here and there is nothing to cause alarm, Dr. Artal says. And if moving that exercise routine from the trails to the treadmill sounds like a seasonal buzzkill, Dr. Artal offers a few helpful tips to stem off mild symptoms: “Something as simple as warming up for a few minutes before a run can help so you aren’t jumping into the exercise or run cold,” he says. “Also, wearing a face covering like a balaclava can be helpful to combat dry air—it will trap a little bit of humidity in your respiratory track.”
There’s no reason to let some coughing keep you from getting out there.