Nordic Lung


I’ve heard that it’s possible to frost your lungs when exercising in extremely cold temperatures. Is there really a medical condition called “Nordic lung”? If so, what is it? I hope this is one of those urban myths.

—Call Me a Hypochondriac

Dear Hypochondriac,

Your winter breathing concerns are somewhat justified. Scientists have found that a significant percentage of elite cold-weather athletes suffer from a bronchial condition similar to exercise-induced asthma (EIA). The symptoms include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness during or after exercise. Some individuals may also experience stomach pain, cramps and headaches.

As expected, scientists have determined that winter athletes are more likely to suffer EIA symptoms than warm-weather athletes. The cause seems to be inhalation of continued volumes of cold air, which can lead to chronic airway injury. One study found that cold, dry air is the most damaging to a winter athlete’s lungs—in other words, the air we breathe here in Telluride.

The saving grace is that the athletes tested were of Olympic caliber, super-human aerobic monsters who move substantial amounts of oxygen through their lungs daily. A web search for “winter asthma, Nordic lung, EIA” will net a few of the research papers I found on this subject.