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Exercise-Induced Asthma

Exercise-Induced Asthma Facts

Asthma is a chronic inflammation of the breathing passages (airways) of the lungs. Asthma is characterized by episodic attacks or periods of respiratory symptoms that can vary in intensity, separated by periods of mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all. The inflammatory reaction of asthma can be triggered by external factors or specific situations or exposures. When a person with asthma is exposed to one of his or her triggers, the inflammation worsens and symptoms begin.

  • The list of possible triggers of asthma is lengthy and varied.
  • Each individual with asthma has his or her own specific trigger or set of triggers, not always easily identifiable.
  • These triggers generally are related to the way we breathe or the condition of the atmosphere we breathe in.
  • Triggers include contaminants in the air, such as smoke, pollution, vapors, dust, or other particles; respiratory infections, such as colds and flu (viruses); allergens in the air, such as molds, animal dander, and pollen; extremes of temperature or humidity; and emotional stress.

Exercise is a common trigger of asthma attacks.

  • Exercise can even induce an asthma attack in people who have no other triggers and do not experience asthma under any other circumstances.
  • People with exercise-induced asthma are believed to be more sensitive to changes in the temperature and humidity of the air.
  • When you are at rest, you breathe through your nose, which serves to warm, humidify, and cleanse the air you inhale to make it more like the air in the lungs.
  • When you are exercising, you breathe faster, leaving less time for the air to become conditioned for the lungs, thus the air that hits your lungs is colder and drier. The contrast between the warm air in the lungs and the cold inhaled air or the dry inhaled air and moist air in the lungs can trigger an attack.

Once the attack is triggered, the airways spasm, resulting in irritation. This irritation leads to inflammation, and a change in the lining of the airways of the lung. This becomes more glandular and secretes mucus, along with thickening of the airway wall. These all combine to narrow the airways, increasing resistance, making it more difficult for air to move in and out of the lungs. This effect is more dramatic on exhalation because this is the time in the respiratory cycle when the chest cavity has a positive pressure outside of the airways. When inhaling the pressure in the chest cavity is negative and there is more of a vacuum, helping to suck the airways open.

  • The swelling and extra mucus partially block or obstruct the airways. This makes it more difficult to push air out of your lungs (exhale).
  • When asthma is left untreated and the inflammation persists, permanent narrowing of the airways can occur. If this happens, this chronic asthma can also be referred to as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). For some forms of asthma, it is important that chronic maintenance medication are used to prevent the development of COPD. Asthma cannot be cured, but it can be controlled by medication. Fortunately, in those with only exercise-induced asthma (EIA), maintenance therapy is often not required and medication can simply be taken before exercise.
  • With appropriate treatment, almost everyone with EIA can enjoy the mental and physical benefits of regular exercise.
  • The large number of elite athletes who have asthma attests to the effectiveness of asthma medication.
  • Whether you walk around your neighborhood or run marathons, asthma doesn't need to stop you from reaching your exercise goals.
Last Reviewed 9/11/2017

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Asthma Medications

The main goals in asthma treatment are to prevent asthma attacks and to control the disease. Avoiding triggers that induce or aggravate asthma attacks is an important aspect of prevention. Medications used to prevent asthma attacks (controller medications) focus on decreasing the airway inflammation that causes attacks. Rescue medications help open up your airway and are used for quick relief when asthma symptoms occur despite the use of controller medications.

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