What do Jessie Diggins and Marit Bjoergen have in common? They are both cross-country skiers competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
And they both have asthma.
Whether you are an Olympic athlete or simply want to enjoy some outdoor activity, asthma should not limit you. Asthma is an inflammatory condition of the lungs that causes narrowing and swelling of the airways. This, in turn, leads to symptoms that include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, or chest tightness.
There are many triggers for asthma. Common triggers include allergens (such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander and mold), infections or colds, changes in the weather, chemicals, strong scents, tobacco smoke – and exercise.
So if exercise can trigger asthma, how can it be safe for patients to exercise?
Exercise-induced asthma (medically known as exercise-induced bronchospasm or EIB) causes symptoms within 5 to 20 minutes from the time exercise begins. Sometimes it doesn’t start until a few minutes after exercise is completed. It’s more typical in cooler, drier places, but it can occur anywhere, including warm, humid climates.
Normally, we breathe through our noses, which warm and humidify the air before it hits our lungs. But with vigorous activity, we’re more likely to breathe through our mouths – meaning that cooler, drier air comes into our bodies. Put that air together with exertion, and for some people that means asthma symptoms.
In addition, when exercising outdoors, asthma symptoms may also be triggered by the pollen in the air. Even if pollen usually isn’t a severe problem for you, the sheer volume you inhale during a vigorous workout could trigger asthma symptoms.
But if you love exercising outdoors, there are ways to avoid trouble.
• Try to breathe through your nose, warm up and drink plenty of water.
• Check the pollen level if you are allergic and avoid exercising outdoors between 5 and 10 a.m. on days with high pollen levels.
If you suffer from any asthma-like symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor. He or she may prescribe an inhaler or a tablet to help you breathe easier and even prevent symptoms. Plus, shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and chest tightness can also occur with cardiac disease or simply being out of shape.
Exercise is very important for everyone’s mental and physical well-being. Just as with other chronic conditions, regular exercise is shown to improve cardiovascular function and quality of life in asthmatics.
Certain activities may be better for people with exercise-induced asthma, such as swimming, hiking or biking. Sports requiring short bursts of energy like baseball, football, and track are less likely to cause symptoms than long-haul activities like basketball or soccer.
However, with the proper diagnosis and treatment, most people with this condition can enjoy almost any sport or activity. So whether you are going for a gold medal or simply want to enjoy some healthy outdoor activity, asthma symptoms should not keep you indoors.
Dr. Ami Degala is board-certified in allergy and immunology.