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Staying Fit with Exercise-Induced Asthma

Asthma image

Do you cough, wheeze, and have a tight chest or shortness of breath when you exercise? If yes, you may have exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, also known as exercised-induced asthma. This happens when the tubes that bring air into and out of your lungs narrow with exercise, causing symptoms of asthma.

An estimated 300 million people worldwide have asthma, according to the World Health Organization, and strenuous exercise makes asthma worse for many people. However, some people with EIB do not otherwise have asthma. People with allergies may also have trouble breathing during exercise.

If you have EIB, you may have problems breathing within five to twenty minutes after exercise. Your symptoms may include wheezing, tight chest, cough, shortness of breath, and, rarely, chest pain.

People with EIB are very sensitive to both low temperatures and dry air. Air is usually warmed and humidified by the nose, but during demanding activity, people breathe more through their mouths. This allows cold, dry air to reach your lower airways and your lungs without passing through your nose, triggering asthma symptoms. Air pollutants, high pollen levels, and viral respiratory infections may also be triggers. Other causes of asthma-like symptoms with exercise include being out of shape, having poorly controlled nasal allergies, and vocal cord issues.

Wheezing or tightness in your chest can be serious, so let your physician know about your symptoms. Your physician can help you by taking your health history, conducting a breathing test (called spirometry) at rest, and conducting a follow-up exercise challenge test.

During demanding activity, people breathe more through their mouths. This allows cold, dry air to reach your lungs without passing through your nose, triggering asthma symptoms.

If your breathing test shows that you might have asthma, your physician may give you a drug to inhale, such as albuterol. If your breathing test numbers improve after inhaling the medicine, then the diagnosis of asthma is more likely.

If your breathing test is normal, you may be asked to take an additional test, called a bronchoprovocation challenge test. Your physician will have you exercise in the sport you play, run outside, cycle, or run on a treadmill. Before and after the exercise, your physician will test the amount of air you force out of your lungs with a spirometry test. If you exhale air less forcefully after exercise, then the problem may be EIB.

After diagnosis, the first step is to develop a treatment plan with your physician. EIB associated with more generalized asthma is prevented with controller medications taken regularly (such as mast cell stabilizers, inhaled steroids, and leukotriene modifiers) or with medicines taken before you exercise (short-acting beta-agonists, such as albuterol). When EIB symptoms occur, they can be treated with short-acting beta-agonists.

In addition to medications, warmups before exercising and cool-downs afterward may prevent or lessen EIB symptoms. You may want to limit exercise when you have a viral infection, when temperatures are low, and when pollen and air pollution levels are high.

Exercising with EIB
The goal of an asthma treatment plan is to keep your symptoms under control so that you can enjoy exercising and sports activities. However, some activities are better for people with EIB. For instance, swimmers are exposed to warm, moist air as they exercise, which does not tend to trigger asthma symptoms. Swimming also helps strengthen upper body muscles.

Walking, leisure biking, and hiking are also good sporting activities for people with EIB. Team sports that require short bursts of energy, such as baseball, football, and some shortdistance track and field events are less likely to cause symptoms than sports that have a lot of ongoing activity, such as soccer, basketball, field hockey, and long-distance running.

Cold weather activities, such as cross-country skiing and ice hockey, are more likely to make symptoms worse, but with proper diagnosis and treatment, many people with EIB can participate and excel in almost any sport or activity.


Source: American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology,

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, Spring/Summer 2010.