An asthma attack is a short period when breathing becomes difficult, sometimes along with chest tightness, wheezing, and coughing. When this happens during or after exercise, it is known as exercise-induced asthma or exercise-induced bronchospasm. About 70 to 90 out of 100 people who have persistent asthma and about 10 out of 100 people who do not have asthma have exercise-induced asthma.footnote 1, footnote 2 Exercise-induced asthma develops most often in athletes, especially those who train or perform in cold air. Swimming appears to cause the fewest problems for children who have asthma. Swimming may even help reduce the severity of exercise-induced asthma.footnote 3
For most people:
- Shortness of breath may occur early in an exercise period. Some people get worse 5 to 10 minutes after exercise stops.
- Difficulty breathing usually goes away within 20 to 30 minutes after stopping exercise.
Exercise-induced asthma is often not diagnosed, especially in children. Most experts agree that a medical history and a physical exam are not accurate tools for diagnosing exercise-induced asthma. If you notice the symptoms of asthma (such as wheezing or shortness of breath) after your child exercises, be sure to tell your doctor. Children who have asthma should still be encouraged to exercise. And they should not be excused from exercise unless that is really needed.
For people who have asthma symptoms during exercise, using asthma-controlling medicine before exercise may help reduce symptoms, especially in cold, dry weather. For these people, some asthma experts recommend the following:footnote 4
- Take your medicine daily, if needed, to reduce airway inflammation and reduce the overreaction (hyperresponsiveness) of the airways that carry air to the lungs (bronchial tubes).
- Warm up before you exercise.
- Use a beta2-agonist inhaler about 10 to 30 minutes before you exercise. Examples of beta2-agonists used for exercise-induced asthma include albuterol (such as Proventil or Ventolin) and levalbuterol (Xopenex). The effect of the short-acting beta2-agonists lasts several hours.
Other steps you can take to reduce asthma symptoms when you exercise include the following:
- Avoid exposure to air pollutants and allergens whenever possible. Exercise indoors when air pollution levels are high.
- Wear a mask or scarf wrapped around your nose and mouth if you are exercising in cold weather. This may help warm and moisten the air you breathe in.
- Exercise slowly for the first 10 to 15 minutes.
If your child has exercise-induced asthma, be sure his or her teachers and coaches know when your child's daily medicines should be given and what to do if your child has an asthma attack, especially before and during physical exercise. Your child's asthma action plan provides this information. School officials need to know the early warning signs of an asthma episode, how your child's medicines are used, and how to give the medicines. School personnel also should know how to contact your child's doctor.
- Sheth KK (2003). Activity-induced asthma. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 50(3): 698–715.
- Mickleborough TD, Gotshall RW (2003). Dietary components with demonstrated effectiveness in decreasing the severity of exercise-induced asthma. Sports Medicine, 33(9): 671–681.
- Rosimini R (2003). Benefits of swim training for children and adolescents with asthma. Journal of the American Academy of Nurses, 15(6): 247–252.
- National Institutes of Health (2007). National Asthma Education and Prevention Program Expert Panel Report 3: Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma (NIH Publication No. 08–5846). Available online: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/asthma/index.htm.
Current as of: February 24, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Elizabeth T. Russo MD - Internal Medicine
Current as of: February 24, 2020