Exercise-Induced Asthma: Symptoms, Triggers and Management
About 18 million Americans have asthma. That’s about 7
percent of the population. Many people who have asthma experience symptoms when
they exercise strenuously. This is called exercise-induced asthma, or EIA. But
there are many non-asthmatic people who experience this type of asthma as well.
Often, they also have allergic rhinitis or a family history of allergies.
What are the symptoms?
Most people with EIA experience difficulty breathing within
5 to 20 minutes after exercise. Symptoms can include
- Tightness in the chest
- Chest pain
What triggers EIA?
If you have EIA, your airways are more sensitive than
average to sudden changes in air temperature and moisture. Normal breathing
generally occurs through the nose, where air is warmed and humidified. When you
exercise, you tend to breathe through your mouth. The air goes into your lower
airways and lungs without the benefit of the warmth and humidity of the nose. If
you’re exercising outside, air pollutants and allergens can increase the
severity of your wheezing.
Some activities are better than others
Activities less likely to cause EIA include:
- Leisurely bike riding
- Short-term track and field
Activities more likely to trigger an attack include
- Field hockey
- Long-distance running
Treatment is highly effective
For the vast majority of people—80 to 90 percent in
fact—inhaled medications are extremely effective in controlling and preventing
EIA symptoms. Most people use what’s called a “short-acting bronchodilator.”
It’s a spray that you use 15 minutes before exercising. It acts quickly and
lasts for about 4 to 6 hours. You can also use it for relief after symptoms
School children benefit from treatment as well
Children who have EIA are also able to use the short-acting
bronchodilator. Teachers can administer the medications during school. There are
also longer-acting sprays that last for 12 hours, which children can take before
they go to school. These medications enable children with EIA to participate
fully in activities along with the rest of their class.
Warm-ups, cool-downs can also help
If you have EIA, warming up with light activity before exercise may help
reduce chest tightness that’s caused by exertion. And cooling down by doing
light activity after hard exercise may help the air in the lungs to change from
cold to warm more gradually.
When should you avoid exercising?
If you have EIA, conditions under which you might want to restrict activity
- When you have a viral infection
- When the temperature outside is extremely low
- When air pollution and pollen levels are very high
Journal of the American Medical Association, June 2005