Staying Active With Exercise-Induced Asthma

If you have exercise-induced asthma, staying active can be a challenge. In this post, you can learn more about this type of asthma and how to keep it from affecting the quality of your life.

I know now that I suffered greatly from this type of asthma as a child, though I wasn't diagnosed until I reached adulthood. These days, I have very few symptoms of asthma at all -- except when I exercise.

If you're wondering if, like me, you might have exercise-induced asthma, then read on...

What Is Exercise-Induced Asthma?

The term "exercise-induced asthma" is actually a bit misleading, as it suggest that exercise somehow causes asthma. This is not the case. Exercise is actually just a trigger for asthma symptoms in certain people.

These days, experts tend to prefer the term, "exercise-induced bronchoconstriction", or EIB for short. Wow -- that's a mouthful, isn't it? Bronchoconstriction simply refers to the narrowing of your airways that occurs as a result of physical exertion.

Now, obviously, not everyone who physically exerts themselves will have EIB. And not everyone who gets short of breath during exercise has asthma or EIB. In fact, it's only people who are sensitive to the effects of both low temperatures and dry air that will experience this discomfort during or shortly after exercise.

When you're active, you tend to breathe more through your mouth than your nose. That means that cold, dry air can reach your lower airways and your lungs without passing through your nasal passages and being warmed first. And that may trigger asthma symptoms in certain people.

It's estimated that about 300 million people in the world suffer from asthma and about 90% of those may have some degree of EIB. But not everyone who has EIB has asthma.

The symptoms of EIB are much like those for asthma, including:

Of those symptoms, coughing is the most common, and sometimes the only symptom of EIB, especially in children and teens. But people who suffer from EIB may also experience these symptoms during or after strenuous activity:

  • Upset stomach
  • Sore throat

Besides cold and/or dry air, other triggers for EIB may include air pollutants, high pollen levels and viral respiratory infections.

So, How Do You Know if YOU Have EIB?

To find out if you have EIB or underlying asthma, you'll need to consult with a health care professional. Your doctor will ask for a health history, so be prepared to share as much information as you can about when you have symptoms and what, if anything, relieves them.

The doctor may also do breathing tests before, during and after exercise that test and measure your lung function. Your health care team can work with you to develop a plan that keeps EIB from interfering in your lifestyle.

Do I Need to Give Up Exercise if I Have EIB?

The answer to this question is a definite no. Everyone benefits from exercise, including people who have asthma and/or EIB. Being active promotes a strong, healthy body. And that is one of your best defenses against disease.

You can, and should, stay active. Prevention is the best approach to managing EIB successfully. If you do also have underlying asthma, then your doctor will probably prescribe a controller medication that you take daily to twice daily to prevent symptoms and attacks. This may include:

  • Inhaled steroids
  • Leukotriene modifiers

There are also medications that can be taken shortly before planned exercise to prevent symptoms from occurring. They include:

  • Long-acting bronhodilators, taken 30 to 60 minutes before activity and only once within a 12-hour period
  • Mast cell stabilizers, taken 15 to 20 minutes before exercise

Both of these types of medicines should not be used during exercise, as they will not provide quick-relief.

If the preventive medications are not enough to control your symptoms, your doctor may also prescribe or recommend a quick-relief, or rescue, inhaler. This is a short-acting brochodilator, such as albuterol, that can treat and reverse the symptoms of EIB when they occur. (Quick-relief inhalers are also sometimes used 10 to 15 minutes before exercise as a preventive measure.)

In addition to medication, prevention should include a slow, gradual warmup. I do a lot of hiking outdoors and I live in a mountain town, so most of my hiking trails begin by going up. I have learned to start out slow on the trail and to stop often in order to warm up gradually.

You may need to take time to stretch and walk slowly before taking part in more strenuous activities. It's also smart to be aware of the types of activity more likely to bring on EIB symptoms.

Also, if you're outdoors in cold weather, breathing through a scarf or neck gaiter will help warm the air you're breathing in. Making a conscious effort to breathe through your nose rather than your mouth should also help.

What Types of Exercise Are Best for People Who Have Asthma and/or EIB?

With careful planning and the right treatment, you should be able to participate in almost any type of exercise. But sports that require only short bursts of activity, rather than lengthy sustained effort may be easier to tolerate.

Swimming indoors, in moist, warm environments is also well-tolerated by most people who have EIB. Cold weather sports can be challenging, but can be done with the right approach. In fact, many Olympic athletes suffer from EIB, but still excel in their sports.

In Summary

You don't have to let asthma or EIB prevent you from leading an active life. Work with your doctor to put together a treatment plan that is right for you and that works. And then go out there and be active! I know I will.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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