Tragic Death Sheds Light on Asthma's Dangers.

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 13, 2001 -- The recent death of Northwestern University football player Rashidi Wheeler has shed new light on the potentially deadly consequences of asthma.

Wheeler, 22, collapsed during preseason conditioning drills with his asthma inhaler in his hand. He died an hour later at a nearby hospital. Following his death, teammates and even the head trainer said they had witnessed Wheeler having asthma attacks many times and thought this time was nothing out of the ordinary.

The American Lung Association says Wheeler is one of about 5,000 people who die from asthma each year.

"Most asthma deaths are possibly preventable," says Anthony Marinelli, MD. "You want to be sure that you are listening to the signals your body is telling you. If you're feeling a lot of discomfort and you can't breathe ... you want to make sure you have an asthma plan."

That plan includes access to your medication -- such as keeping it in your gym bag or even on your person -- and access to help in the form of a workout partner or teammate who can get help for you if you can't normalize your breathing on your own.

Another thing to keep nearby when exercising is a peak flow meter -- a hand-held device that can let you know when an asthma attack is coming on or has already begun, says Marinelli, who is an executive committee member of the board of directors of the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago.

Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia has the nation's only registry to track illness and death attributed to exercise-induced asthma.

Jim Rogers, sports medicine program director at Temple, tells WebMD his facility has tested NFL players and uncovered high rates of poorly treated and undiagnosed asthma. The staff also has documented asthma-related deaths ranging from 7-year-old kids in gym class to 35-year-olds who were working out at health clubs, says Rogers, a certified athletic trainer.

Death from asthma, Rogers continues, is incredibly rare. But it is also "something that is very, very ugly ... and obviously not just for athletes."

He adds that asthma "is the most-common of chronic diseases, we believe, in all athletic communities." Rogers says schools and athletic programs need to start including asthma screening to detect the disease early.

People with exercise-induced asthma may not have symptoms any time other than during exercise or immediately after, which is why it may not be promptly diagnosed. Gym teachers, coaches, and others may be the only witnesses to such symptoms.

"Everyone with asthma should be able to play sports, but we have to make certain conditions," Rogers says, adding that getting diagnosed and treated "will only improve your performance, besides help you feel more comfortable and be safer."

Marinelli says people with asthma shouldn't assume that because they have never had an asthma attack during exercise that it won't happen, especially if air quality is poor.

His tips for people with asthma are to pretreat yourself with your inhaler before exercise and try to work out in the morning or late evening when the temperature and pollution level aren't as high. If you begin experiencing frequent asthma attacks during or after exercise, you don't have to give up exercise completely, but you probably need to have your medication changed, so don't delay in seeing your doctor right away.