When you exercise hard doing things such as running, skiing, biking or aerobic exercise, you typically breathe more rapidly. This fast breathing can make your lungs’ airways dry and irritated. As a result, the airways narrow, making it harder to get air in and out of the lungs, making your chest feel tight and hard to catch a breath. This more frequently happens when exercising in cold, dry air or when there is a sudden change in humidity or temperature.
If you have trouble exercising in the cold, preventive measures such as dressing in layers or wearing a scarf to warm your air, etc., may benefit you. However, could also have exercise-induced bronchospasm, more commonly referred to as exercise-induced asthma (EIA). Approximately 10 percent of people in the U.S. have this condition, and it simply means breathing problems brought on by exercise. Most people with asthma have EIA, but it’s also possible to experience EIA and not have asthma.
Symptoms of EIA include:
- shortness of breath
- wheezing or noisy breathing
- trouble getting a breath
- chest tightness
- unusual fatigue while exercising
Management of exercise-induced asthma is usually preventive. This includes:
- Avoid exercise in cold, dry environments.
- Breathe through the nose to warm and moisten the air or use a face mask or scarf which can help trap moisture and keep the air warmer.
- Use a pre-medication plan.
- Warm-up with exercise at least 5-15 minutes before the activity.
- Avoid running activities if peak flow is within a certain range, as determined by your allergist.
- Avoid running or strenuous activity for one week following an asthma episode or until the peak flow has stabilized.
Why Does Exercise Trigger Asthma?
Think of your nose as a kind of humidifier. When air passes through your nostrils, it is warmed and dampened before it reaches your airways. When you exercise, the tendency is to breathe through your mouth instead of your nose. This means that colder drier air is going directly into your airways, which may trigger an asthma attack.
It can take only five minutes of exertion for symptoms to begin. If this happens, it means that your asthma is not well controlled. Here are some suggestions to help control exercise-induced asthma:
- Be sure to take your asthma medications before you exercise as prescribed by your doctor. This may include a quick relief medication and/or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory inhaler 15 to 30 minutes before the activity. Stick to your Asthma Action Plan.
- Be aware of smog alerts, extra warm, extra humid, or high pollen count days. You may want to avoid outdoor exercise on these days.
- In the winter, use a face mask or scarf to help trap moisture and warm air for re-breathing, as cold, dry air can be hard on asthmatic airways.
- During pollen season, wear a dust mask.
- Warm up first, increase aerobic activity slowly and cool down after finishing. When you step up your strenuous sports, do it sensibly. As your cardiovascular and respiratory levels increase, so will the demands you place on them.
- Exercise should be part of your daily routine for at least a half-hour a day, five days a week.
- You should not exercise if your asthma is unstable or your peak flow is in the yellow or red zones.
Contact our office if your symptoms are not controlled by your current plan. Keep track of your exercise and symptoms to help our doctors manage your condition.