When it comes to exercise, it’s almost always the benefits of it that are stressed — weight loss, improved fitness, protection from disease. However, for those with exercise-induced asthma, there can be a downside as well.
Also known as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), it’s a condition in which strenuous exercise can cause breathing difficulties because the airflow is obstructed. Symptoms are largely the same as classic asthma symptoms and may include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and extreme fatigue. They typically begin during exercise or a few minutes after, but there can also be a “second wave” that can occur up to 12 hours after the end of a workout and last up to 24 hours.
Plenty of people feel winded after a workout, especially if you’re not in shape, but this is more severe. To diagnose EIB, doctors look at one’s overall health history and test lung function before, during and after exercise.
Research shows that 90 percent of people with asthma have had an exercise-induced asthma attack. Some factors that may trigger attacks including cold air, pollution, pollen and chlorine.
Some sports also may be more likely to bring on exercise-induced asthma, such as those that require high exertion over an extended period of time like soccer or long-distance running. Also, those that take place in the cold, such as skiing or ice hockey, may be trigger attacks. EIB is also common in Olympic athletes — about 8 percent of those who participated in the Olympic Games between 2002-2010 were diagnosed with asthma.
While EIB can present life-threatening complications in rare cases if not treated, the good news is there are ways to manage and treat EIB, and it shouldn’t prevent anyone from leading a healthy, active lifestyle.
Experts suggest the following tips for managing EIB:
- Know your triggers (e.g. if pollen tends to bring on attacks, consider exercising indoors when pollen counts are high)
- Cover your mouth and nose with a scarf if it’s cold and dry out
- Take any asthma medications before exercising
- Warm up for 6-10 minutes before beginning your workout
- Breathe through your nose as much as possible
- Monitor your status before, during and after exercise
- Don’t smoke
- Avoid strenuous exercise when you have a respiratory tract infection like a cold or the flu
Medications may include those taken regularly, such as mast cell stabilizers, inhaled steroids and leukotriene modifiers, or those taken right before exercise, such as inhaled, short-acting drugs like albuterol. One recent study found that prebiotics, found in foods like bananas and oatmeal, can reduce the incidence of EIB. While more research is needed, it offers a promising new avenue of treatment for asthma sufferers.
Some evidence also suggests that one’s diet, specifically one that is low in salt and includes fatty fish (e.g. salmon and tuna) and fruits and vegetables that contain vitamin C (e.g. strawberries, orange and leafy green vegetables) may also help sufferers of EIB as well.
The bottom line: While adjustments to your workouts may need to be made, EIB isn’t a reason for anyone to avoid exercise. Talk to your doctor if you suspect you may have it and about how to best manage it.