Exercise-Induced Asthma: Getting Over the Hurdle
Exercise-induced asthma is often treatable and needn't keep you from participating in your favorite sport.

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Exercise-Induced Asthma: Getting Over the Hurdle

Maybe you have had the experience of playing your favorite sport and starting to wheeze. For most people with asthma, physical activity can trigger symptoms. Or perhaps you only get asthma symptoms at times of exercise. This is called exercise-induced asthma, or EIA. It means the airways in your lungs narrow temporarily. And it can be scary.

But you don't need to stop doing the things you enjoy. If you manage your asthma well and are prepared for exercise, you can still run, bike, swim or do other activities without worrying.

What happens with exercise-induced asthma?
Many things can trigger asthma attacks. These include allergies, pollution and exercise. About 70 to 90 percent of people with asthma have attacks when they exercise.

Even if you don't have chronic asthma from allergies or other triggers, if you have EIA, you may get breathless when you exert yourself.

The symptoms of exercise-induced asthma can include:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness

Why does this happen?
We normally breathe through our noses. The nose warms the air, cleans it and moistens it. But when we exercise, we need to breathe faster and more deeply. We inhale through our mouths, which means the air going into our lungs is colder and drier. People with exercise-induced asthma have extra-sensitive airways that react under these conditions. That's especially true if it is cold outside.

Attacks of exercise-induced asthma usually happen about 5 to 10 minutes after you have stopped playing and if you haven't used preventive medication. Only rarely do they come on during the activity. After about a half-hour or 45 minutes, they are gone.

How is it diagnosed?
You may have noticed asthma symptoms as a child or a teenager. Perhaps you've seen your own child become short of breath during a game or other physical activity. The problem often shows itself early in life. A doctor can tell if you or your child has asthma.

Your doctor may use diagnostic tests - such as breathing with a spirometer - to diagnose asthma. Another test uses something called a peak flow meter. The doctor will tell you to breathe out into the device as hard as you can. These methods measure how well your lungs are working.

Are some exercises better?
Some activities seem to trigger asthma symptoms less than others. Swimming tends to cause fewer symptoms because the air is warm and moist. Team sports that have some slower moments - like baseball - can also be less likely to prompt coughing and wheezing. If you're running or playing sports with constant movement like soccer, it may be harder to keep asthma symptoms away.

How is exercise-induced asthma treated?
Physical activity is an important part of everyday health. But if you get asthma symptoms when you exercise, talk to your doctor. If he or she believes the cause is exercise-induced asthma, then typically you will be prescribed some inhaled asthma medicine to take before you begin exercising.

You and your doctor may also need to talk about the exercise you do. Your doctor may advise you to incorporate a warm-up period before you start exercising.

It's important to follow the Asthma Action Plan your doctor has created for you. That includes following the doctor's recommendations for preventing EIA and treating your symptoms. Your daily regimen may include a daily long-term control medication and quick-relief medicines.

If the person with EIA is a child or teen, be sure to talk with his or her coaches, school and camp personnel so they understand how to work best with your teen/child's written Asthma Action Plan.

Other tips that may help include:

  • Choose activities that match your level of fitness.
  • Don't exercise outside when the pollution levels are high.
  • Don't exercise near fields or lawns that have just been mowed.
  • Wear a scarf or mask over your mouth if the weather is cold.

Remember, having asthma doesn't need to put you on the sidelines.

By Emily Gurnon, Contributing Writer
Created on 08/17/2004
Updated on 01/16/2013
  • National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. What is asthma?
  • PubMed Health. Fact sheet: Exercise-induced asthma.
  • American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. Asthma and exercise: Tips to remember.
  • National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Asthma & physical activity in the school.
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