Recently, I moved across the country from muggy Washington, D.C., to sunny San Diego, California. As someone living with severe asthma, I reached a point where my body could no longer handle the extreme temperature differences, the humidity, or the air quality.

I now live on a small peninsula with the Pacific Ocean to the west and the North San Diego Bay to the east. My lungs are thriving in the fresh sea air, and living without temperatures below freezing has been a game-changer.

Although a relocation has done wonders for my asthma, it’s not the only thing that helps — and it’s not for everyone. I’ve learned a lot over the years about how to make seasonal changes easier on my respiratory system.

Here’s what works for me and my asthma throughout the seasons.

I was diagnosed with asthma when I was 15. I knew I had trouble breathing when I exercised, but I just thought I was out of shape and lazy. I also had seasonal allergies and a cough every October through May, but I didn’t think it was that bad.

After an asthma attack and a trip to the emergency room, though, I found out my symptoms were all due to asthma. Following my diagnosis, life got easier and more complicated. To manage my lung function, I had to understand my triggers, which include cold weather, exercise, and environmental allergies.

As the seasons change from summer to winter, I take all the steps I can to ensure that my body is starting at as solid a place as possible. Some of these steps include:

  • getting a flu shot every year
  • making sure I’m up to date on my pneumococcal vaccination
  • keeping my neck and chest warm in cold weather, which means airing out scarves and sweaters (that aren’t wool) that have been in storage
  • making plenty of hot tea to take on the go
  • washing my hands more often than necessary
  • not sharing food or drinks with anyone
  • staying hydrated
  • staying inside during Asthma Peak Week (the third week of September when asthma attacks are typically at their highest)
  • using an air purifier

An air purifier is important year-round, but here in Southern California, moving into fall means having to contend with the dreaded Santa Ana winds. This time of year, having an air purifier is crucial for easy breathing.

Sometimes, even when you do everything you can do to stay ahead of the curve, your lungs still decide to misbehave. I’ve found it helpful to have the following tools around that track changes in my environment that I don’t have control over, as well as tools to pick me up when things go awry.

A nebulizer in addition to my rescue inhaler

My nebulizer uses a liquid form of my rescue meds, so when I’m having a flare, I can use it as needed throughout the day. I have a bulky one that plugs into the wall, and a smaller, wireless one that fits in a tote bag that I can take with me anywhere.

Air quality monitors

I have a small air quality monitor in my room that uses Bluetooth to connect to my phone. It graphs air quality, temperature, and humidity. I also use apps to track air quality in my city, or wherever I’m planning to go that day.

Symptom trackers

I have several apps on my phone that help me track how I’m feeling from day to day. With chronic conditions, it can be hard to notice how symptoms have changed over time.

Keeping a record helps me check in with my lifestyle, choices, and environment so that I can easily match them to how I’m feeling. It also helps me talk to my doctors.

Wearable devices

I wear a watch that monitors my heart rate and can take EKGs if I need it to. There are so many variables that affect my breathing, and this allows me to pinpoint if my heart is involved with a flare or an attack.

It also provides data that I can share with my pulmonologist and cardiologist, so that they can discuss it together to better streamline my care. I also carry a small blood pressure cuff and a pulse oximeter, both of which upload data to my phone via Bluetooth.

Face masks and antibacterial wipes

This may be a no-brainer, but I always make sure I carry a few face masks with me wherever I go. I do this all year, but it’s especially important during cold and flu season.

Medical ID

This one may be the most important. My watch and phone both have an easily accessible medical ID, so medical professionals will know how to handle me in emergency situations.

Learning to advocate for myself in a medical setting has been one of the hardest and most gratifying lessons I’ve ever had to learn. When you trust that your doctor is truly listening to you, it’s much easier to listen to them. If you feel like a part of your treatment plan isn’t working, speak up.

You may find that you need a more intensive maintenance regimen as the weather changes. Maybe an added symptom controller, newer biologic agent, or an oral steroid is what you need to get your lungs through the winter months. You won’t know what your options are until you ask.

If you’ve been diagnosed with severe asthma, chances are you already have an action plan. If your treatment plan changes, your medical ID and action plan should also change.

Mine is the same all year, but my doctors know to be on higher alert from October through May. I have a standing prescription for oral corticosteroids at my pharmacy that I can fill when I need them. I can also increase my maintenance meds when I know I’ll have breathing difficulties.

My medical ID clearly states my allergies, asthma status, and medications I can’t have. I keep breathing-related information near the top of my ID, as that is one of the most critical things to be aware of in an emergency situation. I always have three rescue inhalers on hand, and that information is also noted on my ID.

Right now, I live in a place that doesn’t experience snow. If I did, I’d have to alter my emergency plan. If you’re creating an action plan for an emergency situation, you might want to take into account if you live somewhere that can be easily accessed by emergency vehicles during a snowstorm.

Other questions to consider are: Do you live by yourself? Who is your emergency contact? Do you have a preferred hospital system? What about a medical directive?

Navigating life with severe asthma can be complicated. Seasonal changes can make things more difficult, but that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. So many resources can help you take control of your lungs.

If you learn how to advocate for yourself, use technology to your advantage, and take care of your body, things will begin to fall into place. And if you decide you just can’t take another painful winter, my lungs and I will be ready to welcome you to sunny Southern California.

Kathleen Burnard Headshot by Todd Estrin Photography