Asthma is a chronic condition that makes your airways inflamed and narrow. This can lead to symptoms like wheezing, chest tightness, and trouble breathing.
Exercise-induced asthma happens when aerobic activity triggers these symptoms. It’s also known as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB). With this condition, physical activity makes your airways swell and contract, making it harder to breathe.
EIB is common in people with asthma. But you can still develop EIB even if you don’t have asthma.
Understandably, you may want to avoid physical activity if you have exercise-induced asthma. However, regular exercise is beneficial for everyone, even if you have asthma.
Regular physical activity can actually improve airway inflammation and lung function. This could help you control EIB while reaping the benefits of exercise.
In this article we’ll take a closer look at exercise-induced asthma, symptoms and treatment, and how to exercise safely with this condition.
During exercise, you naturally breathe in more air than you do when you’re resting. This helps your body deliver more oxygen to your muscles while you’re working out.
The air that enters your airways needs to be heated and moisturized. That’s because warm, humid air is easier to breathe in.
The best way to humidify the air you breathe in is to inhale through your nose. However, during exercise, you often also breathe in through your mouth.
Unlike your nose, your mouth doesn’t have the same ability to warm and moisten the air you inhale, or filter out dust and allergens. As a result, the air you breathe in through your mouth is drier, cooler, and may contain more irritants.
When a large amount of dry, cool air enters your body, it can irritate your airways. As a result, your airways are at a higher risk of becoming constricted and inflamed.
The typical symptoms of exercise-induced asthma include:
- coughing (most common)
- chest tightness
- shortness of breath
- chest pain (rare)
These symptoms can range in severity and may also vary depending on your particular condition and the intensity of your workout. You might only have coughing or no symptoms at all.
Usually, symptoms of exercise-induced asthma develop within 5 to 20 minutes of exercise. They might get worse 5 to 10 minutes after you stop physical activity, and last for another 30 minutes.
You may also experience similar symptoms if you’re physically unfit. However, poor physical fitness won’t cause mucus. This symptom is caused by inflammation in the airways.
Symptoms of EIB typically continue after you stop exercising. If you’re physically unfit, your symptoms usually start to ease soon after stopping activity.
You’re more likely to develop exercise-induced asthma if you:
- have a personal or family history of asthma
- have a history of allergic rhinitis
- are exposed to air pollution
- are female
- are exposed to cigarette smoke
- play sports in cold, dry air (like hockey or skiing)
- swim in chlorinated pools
- have a viral respiratory infection
- have vocal cord problems
Treatment for exercise-induced asthma depends on your symptoms and overall health. Your doctor can help you develop a personalized treatment plan that works well for you.
Possible treatment options include several different medications as well as breathing exercises.
Your doctor may prescribe medication, such as:
- Short-acting beta-agonists (SABAs). SABAs, which are the first line of treatment, relax the lining of your airways. It’s inhaled 5 to 20 minutes before exercise to prevent asthma symptoms.
- Inhaled corticosteroids (ICS). If your symptoms don’t respond to SABAs, your doctor may also prescribe inhaled steroids. This medication also reduces airway inflammation and is used for long-term management.
- Leukotriene receptor antagonists (LTRAs). LTRAs are tablets that are used in combination with inhaled mediations. They help enhance lung function and reduce airway inflammation.
- Anticholinergics. Anticholinergics block acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that causes inflammation and mucus production in asthma.
Allergic rhinitis can increase your risk of EIB. If you have a history of allergies, your doctor may suggest an over-the-counter antihistamine to reduce your symptoms.
Breathing exercises may help improve your lung function and ability to breathe. Examples of breathing exercises for asthma include:
If you’re prone to asthma when you exercise, here’s what you can do to exercise safely:
- Use an inhaler before exercising. If your doctor prescribed a rescue inhaler, always use it before physical activity and wait for the recommended amount of time before exercising.
- Warm up and cool down. Avoid abruptly starting or stopping activity. Spend 5 to 10 minutes warming up before you begin exercising, and spend 5 minutes gradually cooling down afterward.
- Cover your mouth with a mask or scarf. This can help humidify and warm the air that you breathe in. It can also reduce your exposure to pollen and pollution.
- Avoid cold weather sports. Cold weather can dry and constrict your airways. Avoid or limit activities like skiing or ice skating.
- Avoid sports with continuous activity. If your asthma is poorly managed, sports involving long stretches of exercise can trigger symptoms. Avoid sports like long-distance running and cycling.
Visit your doctor if you experience symptoms of EIB for the first time.
If you’ve already been diagnosed with asthma or EIB, see your doctor for regular checkups. This will help your doctor track your progress and adjust your medications as necessary.
Follow up with your doctor if you have EIB and symptoms such as:
- persistent coughing or wheezing
- worsening wheezing after taking medicine
- blue lips or nails
- flaring nostrils when you inhale
Exercise-induced asthma, also called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) is triggered by aerobic activity. Inhaling larger amounts of colder, drier air can cause swelling and constriction in your airways, making it difficult to breathe. This can lead to coughing, wheezing, and tightness in the chest.
Fortunately, you can still be active with exercise-induced asthma. Your doctor can prescribe an inhaler to manage your symptoms. Avoiding cold-weather sports, taking frequent breaks, and warming up and cooling down before and after exercise can also help.
As long as your asthma is well controlled, you can safely exercise. Always follow your doctor’s directions and get medical help if you have new or worsening symptoms.