Allercy and Asthma Health
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The Official Publication of AAN - MA

Want To Exercise Despite the Weather? Here’s How To Keep Your Exercise-Induced Asthma Under Control

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By Robert Seifrit, MS, RRT-NPS, AE-C

Winter is here, and you notice the air is drier and more brisk. Many people like to exercise outdoors despite the weather or what season it is. But if you have asthma that is exacerbated by strenuous physical activity either in or outdoors, then you will need to learn how to control your asthma while you enjoy sports such as skiing, hockey, baseball, football, or basketball, to mention a few.

It is okay to exercise during any season if you know what exercise-induced asthma is and how to control it. Indeed, many professional athletes and world-class Olympians have asthma. Exercise is good for your asthma and your lungs. The following information will help you manage your asthma during any season.

Symptoms and causes

Exercise-induced asthma occurs when asthma symptoms are triggered by strenuous or prolonged physical activity, such as playing sports or attending gym class at school.

During normal breathing, people typically breathe in and out through their nose, which moistens, warms, and filters the air we breathe in. When we exercise, we tend to breathe in air through our mouths as well. One reason people experience exercise-induced asthma during the winter months is because, while breathing in through their mouths during exercise, they may breathe in cooler and drier air.

In people with exercise-induced asthma, the airways are hypersensitive to temperature and humidification changes in the air. The airways react to temperature and humidification changes through muscles that squeeze around the airways of the lungs, causing them to narrow or contract. When the airways narrow from muscle spasms or contractions, they cause a person to have symptoms, which include:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Inability to breathe deeply
  • Feeling unusually tired during the activity

A number of outdoor environmental factors can contribute to or worsen exercise-induced asthma, such as the presence of air pollution and allergies in the air.

How to treat it

Thankfully, there are steps you can take to prevent and control exercise-induced asthma.

For most individuals, exercise-induced asthma can be successfully treated and controlled with common asthma medications and preventative measures such as pre-exercise warm-up and cool-down activities.

Inhaled medications taken 15-30 minutes before exercise can prevent symptoms from occurring. The recommended medications that should be taken before exercise are called short-acting beta agonists, which last approximately 4-6 hours (examples are ProAir HFA, Ventolin HFA, Proventil HFA, and Xopenex HFA). Take these inhaled medications with you during your exercise activity.  

If you continue to experience symptoms despite taking a short-acting bronchodilator before physical activity, consider asking your doctor to place you on a controller medication as well, such as an inhaled corticosteroid like Flovent HFA, or increasing the dose of the one you may be on, to improve your breathing. 

Robert Seifrit is a member of the American Association for Respiratory Care from Pennsylvania. He recently took a respiratory care management position at South Florida Baptist Hospital.

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