If you find yourself wheezing, coughing, or have chest tightness after physical activity, you may have exercise-induced asthma. Whether you’re the one experiencing it or you’re watching a loved one suffer, the condition can be scary.
Luckily, there are ways to both prevent and treat it, so you don’t have to stop living a healthy and active lifestyle as a result of your diagnosis. In this article, I’ll cover what exactly exercise-induced asthma is, how it’s triggered, what it looks like, who is most at risk, and how it can be managed if you are diagnosed with it.
What is Exercise-Induced Asthma?
Exercise-induced asthma is an old term for what is now referred to as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB)—the narrowing of the airways in the lungs due to physical exertion, leading to asthma-like symptoms. The term “exercise-induced asthma” is no longer used because anyone can experience this phenomenon, not just people with asthma.
EIB occurs in approximately 90% of people with asthma, but also in 20% of those without asthma.
Why Does Exercise Trigger Asthma?
When you breathe, air enters your lungs after going through your nose, which cleans, moistens, and warms up that air. When you exercise, you’re breathing harder and faster—and more through your mouth than nose—so the air that reaches your lungs is colder and drier than normal.
As a result, the membranes that line the airways to your lungs (called bronchi) can become inflamed and swell up, narrowing the airways and triggering asthma symptoms. When the airways narrow far enough, an asthma attack will take place. People with asthma already have sensitive bronchi, so they’re even more likely to be impacted by EIB.
Symptoms of Exercise-Induced Asthma
Symptoms of EIB can include:
- Labored breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness of the chest
- Poor athletic performance
These symptoms can range from mild to severe, depending on the person and the situation. Symptoms typically do not start at the beginning of the exercise period, but begin during or after.
They typically peak 5-10 minutes after you stop exercising, and resolve 30-45 minutes after they begin.
Certain communities of people are more likely to experience EIB than others, including people with asthma and elite athletes. There are also certain environmental conditions that may make experiencing EIB more likely.
People with asthma
As previously mentioned, EIB occurs in approximately 90% of people with asthma. People who have recently experienced an asthma episode are also more likely to experience EIB while exercising.
Elite athletes are 30-70% more likely to have EIB, and this is especially true for women. Certain sports are also more likely to cause EIB than others.
Sports that require you to be intensely active for more than 5-8 minutes are considered higher risk, as well as sports that are played in cold, dry air or in chlorinated pools. Some popular, high-risk sports include ice hockey, water polo, swimming, skiing, long-distance running, cycling, and high-altitude activities.
Cold and dry air can exacerbate EIB symptoms, as can chlorinated pools.
Studies also show that living or exercising in areas with high levels of pollution can increase EIB symptoms. That’s why it’s important to take note of where you’re exercising, and try to avoid places that might trigger your symptoms.
Complications of Exercise-Induced Asthma
People who experience EIB may experience lifestyle-related complications if they do receive proper treatment and work to take care of themselves. If they stop exercising as a result of the EIB, they may experience a lower quality of life due to a sedentary lifestyle.
If they continue to exercise but do not manage their asthma symptoms, they may experience significant breathing difficulties, which can compound over time.
How to Prevent Exercise-Induced Asthma
There are several ways to prevent EIB before it begins:
- Using bronchodilators: Short-acting bronchodilators should be taken 10-15 minutes before exercise, and can help prevent symptoms for four hours. They can also help with relief if symptoms do begin to occur.
- Preparing for exercise: If you experience EIB, ease into exercise. Starting with a 15-minute warm-up of gentle exercises can make a huge difference later on in your physical activity, and reduce the likelihood of experiencing symptoms.
- Avoiding triggers: As previously mentioned, cold and dry air can trigger EIB. Try to avoid this type of climate while exercising when possible. If you can’t, try wearing a scarf or face mask around your mouth and nose to protect your airways, and try to breathe through your nose, where the air can be warmed. It is also prudent to avoid allergens and viruses which can exacerbate your asthma symptoms.
What Are the Best Exercises for Someone with Asthma?
People who suffer from EIB do not have to avoid exercise. In fact, it’s important that they don’t quit exercising altogether. Research shows that exercise can improve asthma symptoms in the long term—you just have to know your limits, take breaks when needed, warm up properly before you begin, and have your inhaler on hand in case of symptoms.
Studies suggest that interval training (high-intensity exercise with rest periods in between) can also help prevent EIB. Exercising in conditions where the air is warm and moist is also ideal for people prone to EIB.
When to Call 9-1-1
Severe asthma symptoms can be life-threatening.
You should call 9-1-1 or seek emergency medical help if you experience one or more of the following during an asthma attack:
- Your quick-relief medications are not helping your severe symptoms
- You feel severe chest tightness or shortness of breath
- You become drowsy or dizzy
- Your lips or nails start turning blue
- You are breathing rapidly
- Talking or walking normally becomes difficult
When to See a Doctor for Asthma
If your EIB or asthma impacts your quality of life, see a doctor. After diagnosing you with EIB, your doctor may prescribe you inhalers and talk with you about ways to manage your symptoms.
With a plan of attack, you’ll likely be able to exercise freely again in no time. If you are experiencing an asthma attack and your symptoms become extreme, seek emergency care. Asthma can be life threatening if left untreated.
Talk to a Doctor Online
Now you can manage your symptoms online using K Health.
Get care in three easy steps:
- Tell us about yourself.
- Chat with a clinician.
- Manage your condition with inhaler refills and more.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Exercise Induced Asthma. (2021).
Exercise-induced asthma. (2009).
An official American Thoracic Society clinical practice guideline: exercise-induced bronchoconstriction. (2013).
How to Treat an Asthma Attack. (2011).
When To See Your Doctor. (2020).
Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction (Asthma). (2015).
Effect of warm-up exercise on exercise-induced bronchoconstriction. (2012).