Asthma and Exercise

About one in 10 people experience asthma-related coughing or shortness of breath during or shortly after physical activity, whether playing soccer, bicycling, swimming or jogging. Many don’t recognize the problem and simply avoid strenuous exercise.

It’s called EIB – exercise-induced bronchospasm. Airway muscle spasms constrict airflow and cause shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and fatigue. Often these symptoms are a sign of underlying asthma and lung inflammation. Symptoms of EIB usually appear 5 to 10 minutes after exercise starts or ends.

What Causes Exercise-Induced Bronchospasm?

People with EIB have airways that are very sensitive to sudden changes in temperature and humidity, especially when breathing cold, dry air. Nasal passages act as a mini-sauna for the air we breathe – warming the air and adding moisture – in addition to filtering unwanted particles out. But most people breathe through their mouths when they exercise, allowing cold, dry air (plus allergens and other irritants) to reach the lower airways. Mouth breathing is also common among patients with stuffy noses from colds, sinusitis and allergic rhinitis.

Other factors can lead to wheezing with exercise, including air pollution, high pollen counts and respiratory infections.

If you think you 
have EIB, make an 
appointment with a doctor
 familiar with EIB. The doctor will 
take your medical history and have you perform breathing tests after exercise and while resting.

Managing EIB

Treatment of EIB can involve lifestyle changes, avoiding environmental triggers and/or medication. Using an inhaled bronchodilator such as albuterol or formoterol before exercise (when prescribed by a physician) can help prevent the bronchospasm and relieve symptoms when they occur. Other strategies include:

  • Warming-up before exercise and cooling down afterward
  • Staying hydrated
  • Minimizing exercise when potential asthma triggers are present such as cold air, pollen or air pollution, or a viral infection
  • Breathing through the nose or wearing a scarf, particularly during cold weather, to protect against cold air and contaminants

Some activities are better than others for people with EIB. Swimming is often a good choice because it’s done in a warm, humid environment, plus the horizontal position may help move mucus from the bottom of your lungs. But if you are sensitive to chlorine, try walking, leisure biking or hiking – these forms of exercise can be paced more readily than vigorous activities.

Inspirational patient stories:  Full Potential with EIB – Apolo Anton Ohno
                       Sixty-Five Marathons – Mikki Hebl


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