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Exercise and Asthma: Is Exercise Jeopardizing Your Health?

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Causes and Risk Factors | Diagnosis: No Need To Skip Exercise | Treatments Help Keep You Active | Preventing EIA

women walking You have just finished a great workout when you start coughing. You have a hard time breathing and your chest feels tight. Did you push yourself too hard? Maybe. But you are not out of shape. At least, you did not think so. But this is not the first time this has happened after you have exercised.

Sound familiar? If so, then you may have exercise-induced asthma (EIA). Simply put, EIA is asthma that is triggered by exercise. It most commonly strikes after 5-10 minutes of exercise. It may go away 20-60 minutes after you are done exercising.

Symptoms include:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Excess mucus
  • Lacking endurance during exercise

Symptoms often increase when air pollutants, pollen, or cold, dry air is present. That is why EIA is more common in cold weather sports like speed skating, figure skating, and cross-country skiing.

Causes and Risk Factors

It is not completely clear why what causes EIA. A theory is that during exercise, you breath differently, usually more quickly and through your mouth. This affects your lungs because the air that you are inhaling has not had time to be warmed and moistened, the way that it is when you breath through your nose. The cooler and dryer airways cause the muscles around the airways to tighten, which in turn leads to asthma symptoms

Certain factors increase your risk of developing EIA. For example, if you have asthma or severe rhinitis (hay fever), you may be more likely to experience EIA. It is also more prevalent in competitive athletes.

Diagnosis: No Need To Skip Exercise

Unfortunately, EIA is often overlooked and misdiagnosed, which can lead to bigger health problems down the road. Physicians use patient history and breathing function tests in order to diagnose patients with EIA.

Treatments Help Keep You Active

Treatment options for EIA are numerous. The best option varies from person to person and may include medicines that are either inhaled or swallowed. Using medicines called short-acting beta-2 agonists 15 minutes before exercise may be the most effective choice to prevent EIA.

Other interventions include avoiding irritants and exercising in dry, cold environments. It may help to wear a mask or scarf over your mouth in a cold, dry environment. Warming up prior to exercise may also help reduce symptoms.

Because treatment is available, EIA should not prohibit anybody from being active.

Preventing EIA

The key to preventing or reducing the frequency of EIA is to exercise sensibly. Talk to your doctor about what measures would work best for you. Here are some general guidelines to follow:

  • Use your inhaler.—Use an inhaler 15 minutes before exercising if your doctor recommends it. Carry it with you while you are exercising, and use it if you experience asthma symptoms. If you do not have medicine with you when you experience EIA, move into the warmest, most humid place you can find.
  • Consider adding swimming to your exercise program.—Because the air is warmer and moister when swimming, there is less chance of an EIA attack. The only water sport that people should be cautious about participating in is scuba diving. See your doctor if you are interested in scuba diving and have asthma. Also, keep in mind that a heavily chlorinated pool may trigger your asthma symptoms.
  • Take precautions during colder weather.—Wear a face mask or scarf over your nose and mouth when exercising in cold weather. This warms the air before it reaches your lungs.
  • Breathe through your nose.—Although this may be difficult as the intensity of your workout increases, breathing through your nose helps warm the air before it reaches your airways.
  • If you are sensitive to pollen, exercise indoors when pollen counts are high.—If you have to exercise outside, talk to your doctor about adjusting your medicine to manage your asthma.
  • Warm up before exercising.—If recommended by your doctor, warm up for 15 minutes before starting your routine.
  • Take a break if you are sick.—Avoid exercising when you have a cold or the flu or when your daily asthma is not under control.
  • Watch the intensity of your workouts.—Athletes participating in high-intensity aerobic sports, especially with cold air exposure, are more likely to experience EIA symptoms.


The American Lung Association


The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America



Allergy Asthma Information Association


The Canadian Lung Association



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Davies MJ, Fisher LH, Chegini S, Craig TJ. Asthma and the diver. Clin Rev Allergy Immunol. 2005 Oct;29(2):131

Exercise-induced bronchoconstruction. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php. Updated August 31, 2011. Accessed May 11, 2011.

Exercise-induced asthma. Kids Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/medical/asthma/exercise_asthma.html#. Updated April 2010. Accessed May 5, 2010.

Exercise-induced asthma: prevention. Mayo Clinic website. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/exercise-induced-asthma/DS01040. Accessed May 5, 2010.

National Jewish Medical and Research Center website. Available at: http://www.njc.org.

Last reviewed May 2012 by Brian Randall, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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