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Exercise-Induced Asthma: Not Just an Excuse to Skip a Workout!

Exercise is important for everyone (including people with asthma) to maintain a strong, healthy body. Regular exercise is one of the body’s strongest defenses against disease. Yet people with asthma can often experience asthma episodes when they exercise.

Don’t let your asthma be an excuse to skip a workout. With proper prevention and management, you should be able to exercise without asthma symptoms.

What Is Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction (Asthma)?

Exercise can cause shortness of breath for anyone. But for some people,  the airways in the lungs abruptly narrow in response to strenuous exercise and this called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), commonly known as exercise-induced asthma. Nearly 90% of people who suffer from asthma will experience EIB during exercise, but not everyone with EIB has asthma.

Symptoms of exercise induced bronchospasm include the following during exercise:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing and coughing
  • Tightness in chest
  • Decreased endurance

Symptoms usually begin during exercise and can get worse 5-10 minutes into your workout. The symptoms can range from mild to severe and typically resolve within 20-30 minutes with rest.

What Causes EIB?

When you exercise, your breath deepens and you breathe faster because your body needs more oxygen. It’s common to inhale through your mouth drawing in dry or cool air, the main trigger for narrowing airways. When you’re exposed to cold, dry air during exercise, you’re more likely to develop asthma symptoms than you would with warm, humid air. Other triggers can include high pollen levels and other airborne irritants such as smoke or strong fumes.

How to Diagnose EIB

An allergist can help determine whether your symptoms are induced by exercise alone or if you are reacting to other irritants or allergens in the air. During the examination, your allergist will ask questions about your history including if any relatives have asthma. Your doctor may have you do a series of tests to measure your breathing and lung function before, during, and after exercise.

Treatment and Management of EIB

After a diagnosis, your doctor will help you create a plan to prevent asthma symptoms during physical activity. They will also inform you of what to do if you experience an asthma episode during exercise.

Proper management of EIB may include:

  • Preventing symptoms by covering your nose and mouth with a scarf when exercising in cold, dry weather
  • Taking medication recommended by your doctor before exercising
  • Doing a proper warm-up for up to 10 minutes before vigorous activity
  • Watching your respiratory status before, during, and after exercise

If your children have EIB, be sure to inform teachers and coaches. Most children can still participate in activities but may need to take medication beforehand.

Consult with your allergist or health provider before starting an exercise program. With proper management, you can still perform well and excel in a variety of sports.

Activities likely to trigger EIB:

  • Skiing
  • Ice skating
  • Ice hockey
  • Snowboarding
  • Soccer
  • Long distance running

Activities that may be less likely to trigger EIB:

  • Volleyball
  • Baseball
  • Gymnastics
  • Walking
  • Hiking
  • Swimming in warm water

Common Medications for EIB

Your allergist may prescribe one of the following types of medications to prevent exercise-induced asthma.

  • Short-acting beta-agonists / bronchodilator: When taken 10-15 minutes before exercise, this medication can prevent symptoms. This can also treat symptoms of EIB if they occur.
  • Long-acting beta-agonists / bronchodilator: This medication only prevents symptoms and does not offer quick relief once symptoms start. It must be taken 30-60 minutes before an activity and can only be used once in a 12-hour period. It can help prevent EIB symptoms for 10-12 hours.
  • Leukotriene inhibitor: This medication is a pill and is typically taken at least 2 hours before exercise and is effective at preventing EIB symptoms for up to 24 hours. There is some evidence that this medication may be more effective than long acting bronchodilators for prevention of EIB symptoms.

If you or your child have EIB, don’t let this keep you from enjoying exercise. Consult with an allergist at The Allergy and Asthma Specialists of North Florida to begin a treatment plan.

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