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Exercise-Induced Asthma

The trachea is the main breathing tube or airway that branches into smaller breathing tubes called bronchi, which deliver air in and out of the lungs. Exercise-induced asthma is a condition triggered by strong physical activity. Physical activity causes the small breathing tubes to tighten, which makes it difficult for air to be released from the lungs. Exercise-induced asthma, also called exercise-induced bronchospasm, is often diagnosed in children because of their high activity levels, but it can happen at any age.

Exercise-induced asthma is thought to happen to five to 20% of the general population.  People with asthma are at a higher risk for exercise-induced asthma.

In competitive athletes, symptoms tend to be more common in winter and summer endurance sports. Sports such as swimming and ice skating may expose the athlete to chemicals that can also trigger symptoms.

Causes

Though exercise-induced asthma’s cause isn’t fully understood, one theory is that faster breathing with exercise makes it difficult for the breathing tubes to keep enough moisture and heat inside. This aggravates the airways’ lining and causes tightening. Cold and dry conditions tend to make symptoms worse.  

Symptoms

The athlete may experience coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and/or increased mucus several minutes after they begin exercise. Some patients notice poor performance, feel tired or feel out of shape even though they are very fit. 

Symptoms generally occur within five to 30 minutes of intense exercise, and may improve after 30 minutes. Symptoms tend to be worse with more intense activity.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will review your child’s medical history and perform a physical exam to diagnose exercise-induced asthma. 

Your doctor may also recommend lung function testing to help make the diagnosis. Lung function testing measures the ability to blow air out of the lungs before and after taking a medication to help relax the breathing tubes.  The person performing the test may have your child exercise to bring on the symptoms. 

Treatment

The best way to treat exercise-induced asthma is to prevent the onset of symptoms with medications and proper warm-ups. Your child should warm up for 15 to 20 minutes before exercise with dynamic stretching and calisthenics to reach 50-60% of their maximum heart rate.

Inhaled medicines, such as Albuterol, can be used before exercise to help open up the airways and prevent them from closing. Some athletes need other medications to help control symptoms; this is especially true for athletes with regular asthma and exercise-induced asthma. 

Wearing a mask during cold weather may decrease your child’s symptoms. Athletes who notice specific factors that aggravate asthma (such as recently mowed grass) should avoid those triggers. 

Returning to Sports & Activities

Children can generally continue to participate in all activities, though coaches and athletic trainers should be aware of the diagnosis so that they can double-check that your child has their medications at each practice session and competition. The coaches should know to have your child stop exercise if symptoms occur. You should talk to your child’s doctor if symptoms continue despite treatment.

Make an Appointment

If you’d like to request an appointment with one of our Institute for Sports Medicine specialists, call 1.800.543.7362 (1.800.KIDS DOC®). You can also request an appointment online.