What Is Exercise-Induced Asthma?

Most people with asthma have symptoms when they exercise. But some people (including those who do not have asthma) have asthma symptoms only during or after exercise: This is known as exercise-induced asthma (EIA) (also called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, or EIB).

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of EIA?

Symptoms of EIA include:

  • wheezing
  • tightness or pain in the chest
  • coughing
  • shortness of breath that lasts for a while

Really cold, dry air can make EIA symptoms worse.

People with exercise-induced asthma often start having symptoms 5–10 minutes after they begin working out. Symptoms usually peak 5–10 minutes after the person stops exercising, then go away within an hour. For some people, asthma symptoms last for hours after they exercise, or happen only after they stop exercising.

If you think you have EIA, let your parents know. You'll need to see a doctor.

How Is EIA Diagnosed?

To decide if you have EIA, a doctor will probably start by asking about your medical history. The doctor will also examine you. You might run on a treadmill for 6 to 8 minutes, run outside, or do the activity that caused your symptoms. Then, the doctor will look at how you're breathing.

Some people with EIA think they're having breathing trouble because they're not in shape. But someone who's winded from being out of shape will start breathing normally again soon after exercise stops. Someone with EIA may take up to an hour to recover.

How Is EIA Treated?

If you have exercise-induced asthma, your doctor might want you to take asthma medicine before being really active. This is often the same quick-relief medicine used for flare-ups. You breathe the medicine directly into your lungs before exercising and it works immediately to open up the airways. Doctors sometimes call this pretreatment.

If pretreatment isn't enough, your doctor may recommend that you also take daily long-term control medicine. This works over time to help keep the airways open. You need to take it every day, even when you feel well.

Many people find that if they take medicine as prescribed by their doctors, they can work out with few or no problems.

Sports for People With Exercise-Induced Asthma

There's no reason to stop playing sports or working out because you have EIA. As well as keeping you fit, exercise can strengthen the breathing muscles in the chest and help your lungs work better. Doctors no longer tell people with asthma to avoid exercising and, in fact, often recommend it as part of asthma treatment.

Some sports and activities are less likely to cause problems, though. These include:

  • an easy walk, jog, or hike
  • golf
  • baseball
  • football
  • gymnastics
  • shorter track and field events

Some sports are more challenging for people with exercise-induced asthma, such as:

  • long-distance running, cycling, or other endurance sports
  • soccer, basketball, and other sports that demand a lot of energy
  • cold-weather sports like cross-country skiing or ice hockey

You probably still can do even the most challenging sports if you truly enjoy them. It just takes careful management, the right medicine, and proper training.

How Can I Deal With Exercise-Induced Asthma?

When it comes to EIA, staying one step ahead of your symptoms is a good strategy. Ask your doctor what you should do before exercising or playing sports.

Here are some of the things doctors suggest for people who have EIA:

  • Warm up carefully before any exercise to prevent chest tightening.
  • If you do pretreatment, take your medicine as close to the start of exercise as possible.
  • Breathe through your nose during exercise.
  • Take brief rests during exercise and use quick-relief medicine as prescribed if symptoms start.
  • Cool down after exercise.
  • Avoid exercising outside during really cold weather. But if you have to, wear a scarf around your nose and mouth or a ski mask.
  • If pollen or pollution trigger your asthma, exercise indoors on days when the air quality is bad or the pollen count is high.
  • Don't exercise when you have a cold or the flu.
  • Don't exercise if you're having asthma symptoms.

Taking medicine exactly as your doctor prescribes is the most important tip of all. Skipping long-term control medicine, if it's prescribed for you, can make symptoms worse. Forgetting to take medicine before exercise can lead to severe flare-ups and even ER visits.

Finally, always keep your inhaler with you when exercising. You may feel shy about your asthma, but don't hide it from coaches or teammates — they can help you. Coaches especially should know about your asthma so they will understand if you need to take a break and use your medicine.

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