There is often confusion amongst parents and coaches as to whether shortness-of-breath during exercise is a result of asthma or simply being out-of-shape. While shortness-of-breath might be caused by many different factors, it’s important to know if your child may be suffering from exercise-induced-bronchospasm, or as it is more commonly known, exercise-induced-asthma.
At its most basic definition, asthma is caused by inflammation and narrowing in your air passages, decreasing the amount of oxygen sent to your lungs. This is brought about by “triggers” - commonly allergens, such as dust, pollens, pet dander or smoke. Common symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, chest-tightness, coughing and fatigue.
As the name suggests, exercise-induced-asthma (EIA) is a form of asthma, typically with triggers more specifically caused by exercise. Many people with asthma also experience symptoms during exercise, though some people only experience symptoms with increased physical activity.
When we breath, air is commonly moistened and heated in our nasal passages. Often, during physical exertion, athletes will breathe more through their mouths rather than their noses, so the air they inhale is colder and dryer. For some people, this irritates and narrows the airways, leading to asthma symptoms.
To diagnose exercise-induced asthma, a doctor will conduct a thorough medical history and physical exam and typically measure lung function before, during and after exercise.
Is It Safe to Participate?
Whether your child wants to participate in gym class, or your older athlete is participating in high school or collegiate athletics, it is absolutely safe to participate with exercise-induced asthma if you have consulted with a physician and have a treatment plan in place. These often include:
Acute relief medicine: commonly a short-acting bronchodilator such as an albuterol inhaler taken 15-20 minutes prior to activity. It is very important to use the medicine correctly, ideally with a spacer or holding chamber.
Preventative measures, such as a proper warm-up and/or using a scarf to cover your mouth in cold/dry conditions.
Good communication with your physician, athletic trainer, teachers and/or school nurse regarding your athlete’s needs.
Educating your child about monitoring his or her symptoms and what to do during a flare-up.
With proper diagnosis and management plans in place, exercise-induced asthma should not keep your child from participation!
If your child is in immediate respiratory distress and having trouble breathing, seek emergency care at the nearest hospital emergency room. If you are uncertain about this condition, please contact your primary care provider to determine the best treatment plan.
Allison Strouse, MS, AT, ATC is a licensed and certified athletic trainer with Nationwide Children's Hospital Sports Medicine and an assistant athletic trainer at Ohio Dominican University. She graduated with a BS in athletic training at Aquinas College in 2010, and completed her master's degree in exercise science at the University of Toledo in 2012.
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