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Exercise-induced asthma attacks: What to do

Sarah Kelsey is a lifestyle writer, editor and spokesperson based in Toronto. She was the editor of AOL/The Huffington Post Canada’s StyleList, Style and Living sites. Today, she's a freelancer writing for some of North America’s top pub...

How to breathe easy

Recent studies show the prevalence of asthma across the US is on the rise. Already, more than 20 million people suffer from the condition. And more than 80 percent of sufferers experience exercise-induced asthma on a regular basis. So why does exercise-induced asthma happen and what should you do in the event of an attack? Read on to find out.

Woman with Inhaler



What is exercise-induced asthma?

Normally, you breathe through your nose, which is typically an efficient natural air filter. Your nose warms air up if it's too cool, and adds moisture if the air you breathe is too dry. Exercising impacts that process.

When you work out, your body requires more oxygen. So you start to breathe heavier, faster and - more often than not - through your mouth. With mouth-breathing, air doesn't go through the same filtering process as the air you breathe through your nose. It's more likely to be cold, dry and of poor quality.

Asthma sufferers are naturally extra sensitive to things like air temperature, humidity and air quality. Once the lining of their lungs is exposed to cold, dry air, their airways begin to twitch, spasm and even squeeze tighter. The more they exercise in these conditions, the worse the symptoms get. The worse the symptoms get, the harder it becomes to pass air through their nose or mouth and into their lungs.

That's when exercise-induced asthma attacks begin.

Common triggers for exercise-induced asthma

An asthma attack can happen for any number of reasons, not only exercise. But if any of these factors are present while an asthma sufferer is exercising, the risk of an attack increases. Triggers include:
  • Cold air
  • Low humidity
  • Air pollution (smog, dust, car exhaust, etc.)
  • Allergens (grass, pollen)
  • Respiratory infections
  • Fatigue
  • Stress

Signs and symptoms of an attack

It's important for everyone, even non-asthma sufferers, to know the signs and symptoms of an asthma attack. If you see anyone experiencing the following symptoms ask them if they need help immediately.
  • Wheezing
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Chest feels tight
  • Coughing

Some harder to notice symptoms, especially for children, include: 

  • Chest discomfort and pain
  • Sensitivity to temperature changes (especially cold air)
  • Low energy
  • Dizziness
  • Frequent colds

What to do in the event of an exercise-induced asthma attack occurs

The best way to handle an exercise-induced asthma attack is to stop what you're doing immediately. Walk slowly for several minutes and try to regulate your breathing. If that doesn't help, stop moving entirely. Never bend over (the action compresses your lungs, making it even harder for air to get in). Focus on your breathing and try not to panic. (Stress will only make the situation worse.) And, if all else fails, reach for your inhaler and use as directed.

After about 10 minutes, you should be able to start exercising again. If, however, you feel light-headed or weak, call it a day and go home to rest.

Don't let exercise-induced asthma interfere with your fitness

Just because you suffer from asthma does not mean you shouldn't exercise. Actually, just the opposite is true. Exercise can work to strengthen your lungs and bronchials and it can help boost your immune system (a key to preventing chest infections).

Tips for exercising with exercise-induced asthma

1. See a doctor. If for any reason you believe you may suffer from exercise-induced asthma, talk to your doctor and get tested for the condition. Your healthcare provider will likely prescribe you an inhaler (aka: puffer) to use in case of an attack.

2. Never leave home without your inhaler. It can save your life.

3. Take medications as directed. Never over-use your inhaler - follow the treatment plan set forth by your doctor.

4. Warm up and cool down. Before you start a vigorous activity, be sure to warm up with jumping jacks or a brisk walk. Stretching will also get your body prepped for any activity.

5. Start your routine slowly. Increase the intensity of your workouts gradually, tuning in to how you feel and how you are breathing.

6. Check the weather. Exercise-induced asthma can be triggered by a number of environmental factors so if the weather is particularly cold and/or the air is dry, either decrease the intensity of your planned workout (walk instead of run) or stay indoors and workout to an exercise DVD or go to the gym. Visit Weather.com or Accuweather.com for up to date weather conditions for your area.

7. Get educated. If you think you may suffer from exercise-induced asthma, get to know the signs and symptoms of an attack (see above) and what you can do if one happens. Work closely with your healthcare provider on the best treatment plan for you.

8. Vary your workouts. Opting for a variety of physical activities can keep your workouts fresh, boost your fitness, and help you manage exercise-induced asthma. Instead of running, try bike riding or hiking at a leisurely pace. Swap swimming outdoors for swimming in a heated indoor pool. And avoid sports that require long bursts of overly-strenuous activity like hockey, soccer, tennis or basketball.

Don't let exercise-induced asthma deter you from being active – instead, learn as much as you can about this manageable condition and listen to your body so you can ward off an exercise-induced asthma attack before it happens.

Medical resources for exercise-induced asthma

Visit these websites for more information.

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
Allergy and Asthma Network

More on asthma

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Effects of childhood asthma
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