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Exercise and Asthma: A Dangerous Mix?

Controlling Asthma
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Oct. 22, 2001 -- The sports world was shaken when football player Rashidi Wheeler died suddenly of an asthma attack during a training session in July. Can exercise typically cause such severe, life-threatening asthma symptoms? How can asthma sufferers protect themselves or parents protect their asthmatic children? Read on to find out.

 

What Is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic lung condition in which the airways of the lungs are extra sensitive. Whenever they are irritated from the outside, such as by pollens or pollution in the air, or from the inside, such as by eating food you are allergic to, they respond by tightening up, making it difficult to breathe. Symptoms of asthma include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and a feeling of tightness or even pain around the chest. In very severe cases, the airways can close up completely, making breathing impossible.

 

Though deaths from asthma do occur, they are mercifully rare. According to expert Elliott Pearl, MD, only about 4,000 people a year die from asthma in the U.S., which sounds like a lot until you take into account that 15 million people in the U.S. suffer from the condition. Most of the people who die of the disease do not have it under good control with available medication. Pearl is an allergist and immunologist at ENTAAcare, a collection of ear, nose, throat, allergy, and asthma specialists working in the Annapolis-Baltimore, Md., area.

 

Asthma is treated with two types of medication. Short-acting "rescue" medication, usually in the form of an inhaler or bronchodilator containing a drug that opens the airways, can be taken to stop an episode of asthma in its tracks. Longer-acting "maintenance" medications, such as pills or inhalers that have an anti-inflammatory action, are taken every day to prevent an attack from occurring.

Asthma and Exercise

For some people, asthma is brought on only by exercise. For others, exercise is only one of many factors, including cold, dry air, allergens in the air, or pollution, which bring on asthma symptoms.

 

"Most people with asthma have some degree of what we call post-exercise bronchospasm, " Norman H. Edelman, MD, tells WebMD. "Usually when they're exercising, they're OK, but when they stop, their airways tighten up. ... This has to do with the fact that when you exercise a lot, you breathe very fast, you dry out some of the airways, and that's a trigger for tightening of the airways. If they do it in very cold weather, it's much worse because cold air is more drying than warm air." Edelman is a consultant for scientific affairs to the American Lung Association as well as dean of the School of Medicine and vice president of the University Medical Center at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

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