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Exercise-Induced Asthma: Getting Over the Hurdle

Exercise-induced asthma is manageable and needn’t keep you from participating in your favorite sport.

woman using an asthma inhaler

Have you ever been playing your favorite sport and started to wheeze? For some people with asthma, physical activity can trigger symptoms. Or maybe you only get asthma at times of exercise — this is called exercise-induced asthma, or EIA.

If you have EIA, you don’t need to stop doing the things you enjoy. Managing your asthma well and preparing for exercise can allow you to run, bike, swim or do other activities. And staying in shape will help keep your lungs strong.

What are symptoms of EIA?

Many things can trigger asthma symptoms. These include allergies, pollution and exercise. About 80 to 90 percent of people with asthma have symptoms when they exercise.

The symptoms of exercise-induced asthma can include:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness

When do symptoms occur?

EIA usually happens during or just after a person engages in vigorous activity. Symptoms will be at their worst about 5 to 10 minutes after stopping activity. Symptoms often take another 20 to 30 minutes to resolve.

What causes EIA?

We normally breathe through our noses. The nose warms the air, cleans it and moistens it. But when we exercise, we need to breathe faster and more deeply. We inhale through our mouth, which means the air going into our lungs is colder and drier. That decrease in warm, moist air is one factor that can cause the airways to constrict in people with exercise-induced asthma.

How is exercised-induced asthma diagnosed?

To help diagnose EIA, your doctor will take your medical history, talk with you about your symptoms and perform a physical exam. You may have EIA if you have a history of coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, endurance or wheezing problems during exercise.

Your doctor may use diagnostic tests — such as breathing with a spirometer or peak flow meter — to diagnose asthma. These methods measure how well your lungs are working.

How is it treated?

If you get asthma symptoms when you exercise, talk to your doctor. If he or she believes EIA is the cause, you’ll typically be prescribed some inhaled asthma medicine to take before you begin exercising.

Your doctor may advise you to incorporate a warm-up period before you start exercising. And it may help if you wear a scarf or mask over your mouth in cold weather.

Since everyone is different, it’s important to follow the asthma action plan your doctor has created for you. That includes following the doctor’s recommendations for preventing EIA and treating your symptoms. Your daily regimen may include a long-term control medication and quick-relief medicines.

Get the help you need, so asthma doesn’t put you on the sidelines.

By Emily Gurnon, Contributing Writer

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. National asthma education and prevention program. 2007 expert panel report 3: Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of asthma. Accessed: January 25, 2016.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is asthma? Accessed: January 25, 2016.
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Exercise-induced asthma. Accessed: January 25, 2016.

Updated January 28, 2016