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Exercise-Induced Asthma

What Is Exercise-Induced Asthma?

Like it sounds, exercise-induced asthma is asthma that is triggered by vigorous or prolonged exercise or physical exertion. Most people with chronic asthma experience symptoms of asthma during exercise. However, there are many people without chronic asthma who develop symptoms only during exercise.

Why Does Exercise Induce Asthma?

During normal breathing, the air we take in is first warmed and moistened by the nasal passages. Because people tend to breathe through their mouths when they exercise, they are inhaling colder and drier air.

In exercise-induced asthma, the muscle bands around the airways are sensitive to these changes in temperature and humidity and react by contracting, which narrows the airway. This results in symptoms of exercise-induced asthma, which include:

  • Coughing with asthma
  • Tightening of the chest
  • Wheezing
  • Unusual fatigue while exercising
  • Shortness of breath when exercising

The symptoms of exercise-induced asthma generally begin within 5 to 20 minutes after the start of exercise, or 5 to 10 minutes after brief exercise has stopped. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms with exercise, inform your doctor.

If I Have Asthma, Should I Avoid Exercise?

No. You shouldn't avoid physical activity because of exercise-induced asthma. There are steps you can take for prevention of asthma symptoms that will allow you to maintain normal physical activity. In fact, many athletes -- even Olympic athletes -- compete with asthma. 

Can My Exercise-Induced Asthma Be Prevented?

Yes. Asthma inhalers or bronchodilators used prior to exercise can control and prevent exercise-induced asthma symptoms. The preferred asthma medications are short-acting beta-2 agonists such as albuterol. Taken 10 minutes before exercise, these medications can prevent the airways from contracting and help control exercise-induced asthma.

Another asthma treatment that may be useful when taken before exercise is inhaled cromolyn sodium, such as Intal or Tilade,15 to 20 minutes before exercise. 

Having good control of asthma in general will also help prevent exercise-induced symptoms. Medications that may be part of routine asthma management include inhaled corticosteroids. In some cases, a long-acting beta-2 agonist, such as Serevent or Foradil, may be added to the treatment regimen. 

In addition to taking medications, warming up prior to exercising and cooling down after exercise can help in asthma prevention. For those with allergies and asthma, exercise should be limited during high pollen days or when temperatures are extremely low and air pollution levels are high. Infections can cause asthma (colds, flu, sinusitis) and increase asthma symptoms, so it's best to restrict your exercise when you're sick.

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