Most people with asthma have symptoms during exercise.1 For other people, exercise is the only asthma trigger. Asthma triggered by exercise is called exercise-induced asthma.

Asthma symptoms are most likely to occur during endurance sports and cold weather exercise.1 Rapid, deep breathing causes airway narrowing.2 Breathing cold, dry air causes the lungs to lose water, heat, or both, and these losses trigger airway narrowing.3 Additionally, exercising outdoors exposes athletes to several other asthma triggers. Common outdoor triggers are cold air, allergens, and air pollution.2

Asthma symptoms are worst five to ten minutes after stopping exercise.3 By 20 to 30 minutes post-workout, the symptoms are usually gone.3

You do not need to avoid exercise if you have exercise-induced asthma. Regular exercise is recommended for its general health benefits.4 Additionally, getting out of shape makes you feel even more breathless when you are active.5 If your asthma is well controlled, you should be able to participate in any activity you choose, including exercise.3 Being active can improve your level of fitness and quality of life.5 If you are overweight, exercise can lead to weight loss and better symptom control.3

How common is exercise-induced asthma?

Exercise is a trigger for 90% of people diagnosed with asthma.1 About 20% of recreational exercisers have asthma that is only related to exercise.6 Exercise-induced asthma is much more common in athletes. For example, 30% of ice rink athletes and 79% of swimmers have exercise-induced asthma.2,7

What can I do to stay active?

A ten to 15 minute warm-up may lead to fewer asthma symptoms.2 The warm-up should be moderately vigorous, such as walking faster than 3 miles per hour, treading water, or bicycling five to nine miles per hour.8 The best warm-ups also include high-intensity intervals, such as jogging, swimming laps, or bicycling more than ten miles per hour.2 Research has shown some people experience a 2-hour symptom-free window after warming up.

Warming the air before breathing it in can help during cold weather exercise. Athletes can wear a scarf, face mask, or special heat-exchange mask over their mouth and nose to warm and humidify the air.1,2

Some types of exercise may cause fewer symptoms.1 Team sports, such as football, baseball, wrestling, or sprinting, that require bursts of energy may be easier on the lungs than distance events. Consider alternatives to skiing, ice-skating, or hockey. It would seem that swimming might be a good choice, since the air is humid and warm. However, chlorine byproducts can irritate the airways.

Medications can also help with exercise-induced asthma. Your health care provider may recommend using a short-acting beta-agonist (SABA). This medication is taken five to 20 minutes before exercising.2 SABAs relax the airways, allowing them to open up. If you need to use a SABA every day, your provider may recommend adding a second medication.2

Written by: Sarah O'Brien | Last Reviewed: May 2016.
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