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The athlete's guide to exercise-induced asthma

Exercise-induced asthma shouldn't keep you from working out. Here's how to keep your symptoms under control.
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Whether you work out at the weekend or are a professional athlete there's no reason that exercise-induced asthma has to hold you back.

Forget the image of the wheezing child never picked for school teams. It hasn't stopped David Beckham or Paula Radcliffe. In fact, a whole host of Olympians and sports stars deal with exercise-induced asthma and are still at the top of their game.

What is exercise-induced asthma?

Is exercise-induced asthma real? Yes. Isn't it just being out of condition? No. It's also known as exercise induced bronchoconstriction.

The symptoms of exercise-induced asthma are coughing, wheezing or tightness of the chest during or after exercise.

"Some people find that they have symptoms of asthma only when they exercise and not at any other times," says Andrew Proctor, director of advice and support at Asthma UK. "Symptoms are usually most intense after exercising and then gradually improve."

"It's a reduction in the flow of air through narrowed airways brought on by exercise," says Dr James Hull, consultant respiratory physician at the Royal Brompton Hospital. "Up to 90% of asthmatics have exercise-induced asthma and exercise is a really important trigger for symptoms in nearly all individuals with asthma. Some people, particularly athletes, only have narrowing of the airways with exercise and no other symptoms of asthma."

"If you're having regular asthma symptoms when you exercise, plus when you also come into contact with other triggers, such as pollen, pets, cold air or pollution, it's unlikely that you have exercise-induced asthma," says Mr Proctor.

What triggers exercise-induced asthma?

There are a number of triggers of exercise-induced asthma. People with exercise-induced asthma tend to be sensitive to colder, drier air.

"Classic activities that can trigger exercise-induced asthma are a winter jog on a cold morning, cross country skiing or rowing on a cold river," says Dr Hull.

Working very intensely leads to breathing through the mouth rather than the nose. This means colder air is going straight to the lungs rather than passing through the nose which would normally warm it up first.

"If you go for a run, when you start to run harder you experience mouth breathing which means the lungs have to warm and filter the cold air which produces inflammation in your lower airways and smooth muscle constriction so the airflow is limited when you breathe out," explains Dr John Dickinson, a sport and exercise scientist at the University of Kent.

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