Exercise Induced Asthma Is Just Another Challenge to Overcome

by Kathi MacNaughton Health Professional

Exercise-induced asthma, or EIA for short, is a type of asthma where symptoms are triggered by activity or exercise.

If you experience coughing, wheezing, or chest tightness when you exercise, you might have EIA. Or, if you feel extremely tired or winded when you exert yourself, EIA could be the culprit. So, if you're having those symptoms, be sure to check with your doctor to find out if exercise-induced asthma is the cause. Don't try to diagnose yourself... other conditions might mimic asthma. Only your doctor can tell for sure.

According to the American Lung Association, about 7 out of every 100 people (or 7%) in the US have exercise-induced asthma. That's about 20 million people, so clearly, it's a fairly common condition. I have it myself, though exercise is not my only asthma trigger, just one of the many.

EIA is especially common in people who have nasal allergies up to 40% of them will experience asthma symptoms with exercise. Even if you just have a family history of allergy, you may be more likely to develop EIA.

When you have exercise-induced asthma, you will probably notice symptoms and have trouble breathing within 5 to 20 minutes after exercise. This occurs because your airways are extra sensitive to sudden changes in temperature and humidity, particularly if you are breathing colder, drier air.

This is compounded by the fact that when you exercise you often do more mouth breathing than nose breathing. Mouth breathing lets cold, dry air pass into your airways without being warmed and humidified by the nasal passages.

Other possible irritants that may trigger asthma symptoms during exercise are air pollution, pollen, and respiratory tract infections.

As mentioned above, if you notice that you are having wheezing, chest tightness, coughing or feel short of breath after exercise, check with your doctor. To diagnose asthma, he or she will ask you questions about your symptoms and medical history. You may also have a breathing test at rest and then after exercise.

Once a diagnosis is made, a treatment plan can be developed. Having EIA does not mean you can no longer be active. In fact, many Olympic athletes have EIA, yet still compete successfully! A recent study showed that 1 out of 6 Olympians had EIA.

Certain sports are easier to tolerate than others when you have EIA. For example, continuous-activity sports such as walking, swimming, and downhill skiing can be great choices for people with asthma. On the other hand, sports that require short bursts of intense activity, such as basketball, baseball, or long-distance running, may be more challenging. Also, cold weather sports such as cross-country skiing or ice hockey may also trigger symptoms. But, many athletes have found that with the right conditioning and treatment, they can even compete in those sports without problems.

You may need to learn how to pace your activity so you build your level of exertion gradually. If you're exercising outdoors wearing a scarf that you can breathe through may help. Besides warming up gradually, taking time for a cool-down period after exercise is through may also help hold off symptoms.

Your doctor may also prescribe one of several asthma medications. Commonly, both preventive and quick-relief inhalers are used to treat EIA. The treatment of choice, however, is an inhaled short-acting beta agonist taken about 15 minutes before exercise or activity begins. Examples include albuterol, pirbuterol, and terbutaline. These drugs act quickly and last for about 4 to 6 hours.

So, if your doctor does decide that you have exercise-induced asthma, there is no cause for alarm. Yes, you may need to take a few precautions whenever you exercise. But there should be no reason you cannot continue to lead an active, healthy life.

Kathi  MacNaughton
Meet Our Writer
Kathi MacNaughton

Kathi is an experienced consumer health education writer, with a prior career in nursing that spanned more than 30 years — much of it in the field of home health care. Over the past 15 years, she's been an avid contributor for a number of consumer health websites, specializing in asthma, allergy, and COPD. She writes not only as a healthcare professional, but also as a lifelong sufferer of severe allergies and mild asthma, and as a caregiver for her mother with COPD.