What is exercise-induced asthma?

Exercise-induced asthma is asthma that is triggered by physical activity. Most people who have chronic asthma will experience symptoms when they exercise. However, many people without chronic asthma develop symptoms only during exertion.

During normal breathing, the air we breathe is first warmed and moistened by the nasal passages. One of the reasons that exercise-induced asthma may occur is that during exercise, people tend to breathe through the mouth, which means that they inhale colder and drier air. In exercise-induced asthma, the muscle bands around the airways are sensitive to these changes in temperature and humidity of the inhaled air. These bands react by contracting (or spasming), which narrows the airway. This results in symptoms of asthma.

What are the symptoms of exercise-induced asthma?

Exercise-induced asthma’s symptoms include:

  • Coughing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Wheezing
  • Unusual fatigue while exercising
  • Feeling short of breath while exercising

Other factors that can influence the degree of symptoms with exercise are the presence of pollens and pollutants in the air and upper respiratory infections.

The symptoms of exercise-induced asthma generally begin within 5-20 minutes after the start of physical activity, or 5-10 minutes after brief exercise has stopped. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms with physical exertion, tell your doctor.

How do I control the symptoms of exercise-induced asthma?

You should not avoid exercise because of exercise-induced asthma. There are steps you can take to control the symptoms and allow you or your child to maintain normal physical activity.

Inhaled medications taken prior to exercise can control and prevent exercise-induced asthma symptoms. The preferred medications are the short-acting beta2 agonist inhalers, such as:

  • ProAir®
  • Proventil HFA®
  • Ventolin HFA®
  • Xoponex HFA®

Taken 15-20 minutes before exercise, these medications can prevent the airways from contracting and can provide control of exercise-induced asthma for as long as 4 to 6 hours.

If you continue to have symptoms, your doctor may need to start or change to a longer acting inhaler for you. It is important to talk with your doctor about how treatment of your exercise- induced symptoms is working.

In addition to medications, a warm-up phase before exertion and a cool-down period afterward can help prevent exercise-induced asthma. Exercise outside should be limited during high pollen days (if allergic) or when temperatures are extremely low and air pollution levels are high. The presence of viral upper respiratory infections can also increase symptoms, so you should restrict exercise if you have such an infection.

Which sports are more likely to cause symptoms?

The type of activity that causes exercise-induced asthma varies from person to person.

For some people activities that involve short, intermittent periods of exertion, such as volleyball, gymnastics, baseball, walking, and wrestling may lead to symptoms.

For others, activities that involve long periods of exertion (soccer, distance running, basketball, and field hockey), or cold weather sports (ice hockey, cross-country skiing, ice skating), may not be tolerated.

Others still are not able to participate in swimming, which is a strong endurance sport, and generally well tolerated because it is usually performed in a warm, moist air environment. Despite these limitations, many people with asthma are able to fully participate in some activities when they take the right precautions.

What is the outlook for exercise-induced asthma?

Maintaining an active lifestyle is important for both physical and mental health. The goal of treating exercise-induced asthma is to allow full participation in sports and activities. It's important to communicate with your doctor when the treatment plan is not effectively controlling exercise-induced asthma. The right treatment will allow you to fully benefit from an exercise program.


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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 4/27/2017...#4174