You’d think that elite athletes would breathe easier, right?
Not true. While only 10% of the general population struggles with exercise-induced asthma, it’s estimated that 20% to 50% of elite athletes face these breathing problems.
What is exercise-induced asthma? Just like it sounds, the condition is triggered by vigorous or prolonged exercise. While most people with chronic asthma experience exercise-induced asthma, the reverse is not true. There are many people without chronic asthma who develop symptoms only during exercise.
Back to those elite athletes: The theory is that the condition may be linked to the athletes' intense training, particularly those who participate in endurance sports like long distance running or winter sports like skiing and ice-skating.
Whether you’re an elite athlete or can only manage a few miles on the treadmill, here are 5 things you need to know about exercise-induced asthma.
1. When you exercise, the extra oxygen demands of your body cause you to breathe faster and deeper. Because you usually inhale through your mouth during exercise, the air is dryer and cooler than when you inhale through your nose. That dry/cool air is the main trigger for airway narrowing, which is why exercising in the cold triggers symptoms more than exercising when the air is warm and humid. Other triggers include high pollen counts, smoke and pollution.
2. Symptoms of exercise-induced asthma include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath and usually occur after a few minutes of exercising. Symptoms are typically at their worst 5 to 10 minutes after stopping exercise and resolve another 20 to 30 minutes later. Some individuals experience a second wave of symptoms 4 to 12 hours after stopping exercise. Those symptoms are usually less severe and resolve within 24 hours.
3. Certain sports are easier for those with exercise-induced asthma than others. Long distance running and soccer, for example, can be difficult because they require exertion over a long time period. Ice hockey and snowboarding can trigger more symptoms because they are done in the cold. Sports that require short bursts of energy, on the other hand, can be much easier. Those include gymnastics, baseball and volleyball. Swimming can also be good a choice because it’s done in a warm, humid environment, although there is some concern over the effect of chlorine on the airways.
4. A proper warm up can result in less symptoms. One study shows that the best strategy is to warm up by starting slow, gradually increasing your pace and then including several bursts at 80 to 90 per cent of maximum intensity, each lasting two to five minutes. Doing so seems to fool the inflammation-stimulating cells in the bronchial tube, leading to a “refractory period” of an hour or so, during which you can usually complete a workout without setting off bronchospasms.
5. Both short-acting and long-term-control medications can be used to treat exercise-induced asthma. Short-acting drugs are taken before beginning exercise and include albuterol and levalbuterol, which are both inhaled drugs that open airways.
Long term-control medications are typically taken in addition to pre-exercise medication to manage symptoms. These include inhaled corticosteroids such as fluticasone and mometasone, both of which help suppress inflammation in the airways.
The good news—proven by all of the elite athletes who experience exercise-induced asthma—is that the condition doesn’t have to slow you down if properly treated. If you or a loved one think you are experiencing symptoms of exercise-induced asthma, make an appointment with one of our physicians today.