Asthma Get Moving!

Don’t Let Exercise-Induced Asthma Hold You Back

couple riding bikesDo you cough, wheeze, and have a tight chest or shortness of breath when you exercise? If yes, you may have exercise-induced bronchoconstriction. 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 can make it worse. Some people with EIB do not have asthma, and people with allergies may also have trouble breathing during exercise.

Symptoms  If you have EIB, you may have problems breathing within 5 to 20 minutes after exercise. Your symptoms may include wheezing, tight chest, cough, shortness of breath, and, rarely, chest pain. 

Triggers  People with EIB are typically 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 symptoms while exercising include being out of shape, poorly controlled nasal allergies, and vocal cord issues.

People with EIB can participate and excel in almost any sport or activity.

Diagnosis  Wheezing or tightness in your chest can be serious, so let your physician know about your symptoms.
Your physician will begin by getting your health history, performing a breathing test called spirometry at rest, and doing a follow-up exercise challenge test. 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.

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, or have you 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.

Exercising with EIB  The first step is to develop a treatment plan with your physician. In addition to medications, warm-ups, cool-downs, and wearing a mask or scarf over your mouth may prevent or lessen EIB symptoms. You may want to limit exercise when you have a viral infection, temperatures are low, or pollen and air pollution levels are high.

The goal of an asthma treatment plan is to keep your symptoms under control so that you can enjoy exercising or sports activities. However, there are some activities that 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 short-term track and field 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.

Exercise is important and provides many health benefits, especially for people with asthma. So don’t give up on an active lifestyle.

Source: American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology,

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, Fall/Winter 2017-2018.