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Asthma and Exercise

What is exercise-induced asthma?

Many people diagnosed with asthma will have asthma symptoms when exercising. In addition, some who are not diagnosed with asthma will have asthma symptoms, but only during exercise. This is a condition called exercise-induced asthma.

Woman tired from exercising
Long-distance running may aggravate exercise-induced asthma.

Exercise-induced asthma is different from the typical asthma that is triggered by allergens and/or irritants. Some people have both types of asthma, while others only have exercise-induced asthma.

Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory lung disease that leads to three airway problems: obstruction, inflammation, and hyper-responsiveness. Unfortunately, the basic cause of asthma is still not known.

How does exercise cause asthma symptoms?

When breathing normally, the air that enters the airways is first warmed and moistened by the upper airway to prevent injury to the delicate lining of the airways. However, for someone with asthma, the airways may be extremely sensitive to allergens, irritants, infection, weather, and/or exercise. When asthma symptoms begin, the airways' muscles constrict and narrow, the lining of the airways begins to swell, and mucus production may increase. When exercising (especially outside in cold weather), the increased breathing in and out through the mouth may cause the airways to dry and cool, which may irritate them and cause the onset of asthma symptoms. In addition, when breathing through the mouth during exercise, a person will inhale more air-borne particles, including pollen, which can trigger asthma.

What are the symptoms of exercise-induced asthma?

Exercise-induced asthma is characterized by asthma symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, and tightness in the chest within 5 to 20 minutes after starting to exercise. Exercised-induced asthma can also include symptoms such as unusual fatigue and feeling short-of-breath while exercising.

However, exercise should not be avoided because of asthma. In fact, exercise is very beneficial to a person with asthma, improving their airway function by strengthening their breathing muscles. Consult your doctor for more information.

How can exercise-induced asthma be controlled?

Stretching and proper warm-up and cool-down exercises may relieve any chest tightness that occurs with exercising. In addition, breathing through the nose and not the mouth will help warm and humidify the air before it enters the airways, protecting the delicate lining of the airways. Other ways to help prevent an asthma attack due to exercise include the following:

  • Your doctor may prescribe an inhaled asthma medication to use before exercise, which may also be used after exercise if symptoms occur.

  • Avoid exercising in very low temperatures.

  • If exercising during cold weather, wear a scarf over your mouth and nose, so that the air breathed in is warm and easier to inhale.

  • Avoid exercising when pollen or air pollution levels are high (if allergy plays a role in the asthma).

  • If inhaling air through the mouth, keep the mouth pursed (lips forming a small "O" close together), so that the air is less cold and dry when it enters the airways during exercise.

  • Carry an inhaler, just in case of an asthma attack.

  • Wear an allergy mask during pollen season.

  • Avoid exercise when experiencing a viral infection.

What sports are recommended for people with asthma?

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, some sports, such as swimming, may be less likely to trigger an asthma attack due to the warm, humid environment, the toning of the upper muscles, and the horizontal position (which may actually loosen mucus from the bottom of the lungs.) Other activities and sports less likely to trigger an asthma attack include;

  • Swimming

  • Baseball

  • Biking leisurely

  • Football

  • Free downhill skiing

  • Golfing

  • Gymnastics

  • Hiking

  • Short-distance track and field

  • Surfing

  • Walking

  • Wrestling

Sports that may aggravate exercise-induced asthma symptoms include:

  • Soccer

  • Cross-country skiing

  • Basketball

  • Long-distance running

  • Ice hockey

However, with proper management and preparation, most people with asthma can participate in any sport.