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Home / Asthma / Exercise-Induced Asthma

Exercise-Induced Asthma

Asthma is a common condition that affects many people in the UK. Around 5.4 million people currently receive treatment, which breaks down as one in every twelve adults and one in every eleven children. In untreated or serious cases, three asthma sufferers die every day. Sadly it's estimated that 90% of these deaths could have been prevented.

There are many triggers for asthma. Allergies to pollen and pets, cold weather, illness, smoking, hormones, stress and exercise are all recorded triggers.

What Is Exercise-Induced Asthma?

Medically known as bronchoconstriction, exercise-induced asthma occurs when the airways narrow during vigorous exercise. It's important to remember that exercise does not cause asthma, exercise is a trigger. When the condition is managed properly, exercise and a healthy lifestyle are still possible.

What Are The Symptoms and Signs?

Exercise-induced asthma attacks can begin either during or after the activity - it varies with the individual. Often asthma will begin 5-20 minutes into exercise or 5-10 minutes after exercise has stopped.

Symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Chest pain and/or tightness
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Tiredness during exercise
  • Poor performance during exercise
  • Avoiding exercise (often found in young children)

What Are The Triggers?

Research is underway but so far we know that a mixture of environmental factors and activities contribute to exercise-induced asthma. When we breathe normally, air is warmed and moistened by our nose, but during exercise people often breathe directly through their mouth which means cold, dry air is passed straight into the lungs. Some people are sensitive to this process and it results in an exercise-induced asthma attack.

Stress or emotional changes can trigger exercise-induced asthma too, as they can increase the amount of air taken in and raise the heart rate.

The following conditions can increase the risk of experiencing an attack:

  • Dry air
  • Air pollution
  • High pollen count
  • Chlorine and other chemicals used to clean or resurface sporting areas
  • Being unwell with a respiratory infection
  • Extended, ongoing physical activities such as running or skiing

What Activities Are Safe?

With the right treatment most exercise activities are safe, but some are more likely to trigger an attack. Safer activities are those that can be undertaken at your own pace with time to break for a rest.

  • Swimming - the moist air can help, but chlorine is a trigger for some
  • Walking and hiking
  • Yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates
  • Leisurely cycling
  • Team games that involved short bursts of activity rather than sustained continuous effort.

Should Sufferers Avoid Exercise?

No - exercise in an important factor in keeping us healthy. There are medications and preventative actions that can allow people to continue exercising.

Some top class British athletes have asthma, such as Olympian runner Paula Radcliffe, cyclist Bradley Wiggins, swimmer Rebecca Addlington and long-jumper Greg Rutherford. In many cases they say that exercise helped them to manage their asthma.

Exercise can help asthma-sufferers through:

  • Strengthening lungs
  • Boosting confidence
  • Reducing the stress associated with asthma
  • Keeping weight at a healthy level

How To Manage It Naturally

Get an asthma plan

To manage asthma, whether exercise-induced or not, everyone should have a current asthma plan written with a GP or nurse. This plan will outline what to do to prevent an attack, how to manage it should one occur, current medications and the best technique. School teachers should be aware of asthma plans if children are identified as suffering from any form of asthma.

Managed exercise

Before exercising asthma sufferers should warm up slowly and then cool down after exertion. They should also limit exercise if the temperature is very low or if the pollen count is high. On these days some people find it useful to breathe through their nose or wear a mask or scarf.

It's best to avoid exercise if unwell with a respiratory infection, and always exercise at an appropriate level of exertion.

Stop immediately if these symptoms appear:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath or gasping for air
  • A tight chest
  • Inability to speak
  • Chest or stomach ache

If the symptoms worsen and medication doesn't help, then seek immediate medical help.

Dietary changes

Some researchers believe than an altered diet can improve exercise-induced asthma. A small amount of studies indicate that the following foods may help.

  1. Fatty fish and fish oil supplements
  2. A high vitamin C intake from strawberries, oranges, broccoli or supplements
  3. Low salt diet

Asthma Medications

A doctor can prescribe medicines to take before or during exercise that can control symptoms. Sometimes asthmatics are prescribed a preventative inhaler which reduces inflammation of the airways, and a reliever for use during attacks. Inhalers are the best way to take asthma medication because they deliver the right dose directly into the airways and lungs where it is needed. If you have asthma you should always keep you inhalers close by.

Reliever inhalers

This is the life-saving inhaler taken at the onset of an attack when breathlessness, chest tightness and coughing begins, but if you take your reliever inhaler more than three times a week it's important to visit your GP to update your plan.

Some people with exercise-induced asthma take their reliever inhaler 15-20 minutes before exercise.

Reliever inhalers such as Salamol, Asmasal and Ventolin relax airway muscles and should be kept close by during exercise.

Preventer inhalers

Preventer inhalers such as Qvar and Seretide won't stop an asthma attack but they are often prescribed with reliever inhalers to manage symptoms that occur regularly, and are helpful in decreasing sensitivity to triggers.

Preventer inhalers usually contain a steroid that reduces swelling and inflammation in the airways and stops asthma attacks occurring.

The preventative function builds up over time, so it's important to take the preventer regularly as prescribed, which is usually twice a day.

People living with exercise-induced asthma can still exercise if their asthma is well-managed and under control. Exercise is good for you, so it's important to keep moving. It's a serious condition, but one that can be managed with the right help.
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