Five fast facts about exercise-induced asthma

Exercise-Induced Asthma (EIA) is a condition that causes the muscles around the airway to spasm, which leads to a widespread narrowing of the airway.

EIA is a very common condition that affects up to 15% of the U.S. population. Here’s what you should know about this respiratory condition.

1. Exercise doesn’t actually cause asthma

Exercise-Induced Asthma is also referred to as Exercise-Induced Bronchospasm (EIB) to alleviate the misperception that exercise can cause asthma. The truth is that exercise does not cause asthma; it exacerbates asthma in people who already have asthma as an underlying condition. If you have not been diagnosed with asthma, but notice respiratory distress after exercising, you should consult with a healthcare provider, who can confirm a diagnosis and provide you with a care plan to control asthma symptoms.

2. There are several ways to diagnose exercise-induced asthma

Exercise-induced asthma is often diagnosed based on symptoms and exam findings. The common symptoms of EIA are wheezing and shortness of breath that typically begin ten minutes into aerobic exercise and persists for up to two hours after exercise is completed. It also typically is worse in cold, dry weather and in places where there are high levels of airborne allergens or air pollution.

To confirm the diagnosis, formal tests can be conducted where a patient’s lung capacity is measured before, during, and after exercise, and before and after an inhaled asthma medication is administered.

3. Pharmacologic treatments are available

The most common medication prescribed for EIA is a hand-held inhaler that contains a medication called albuterol. Albuterol is a bronchodilator that relaxes the muscles around the airway, which allows the airway to open so patients can breathe more easily.

In addition, patients with moderate or severe asthma often benefit from long-acting bronchodilators and from steroid inhalers that reduce inflammation.

4. There are also non-pharmacologic ways to reduce EIA symptoms

Patients can do several things to improve EIA symptoms that don’t involve medication. Doing gentle warmup exercises for about 15 minutes prior to intense aerobic exercise can be helpful. Breathing through the nose rather than the mouth while exercising outdoors can help hydrate and warm the air before it reaches the lungs. Wearing a facemask can also help protect the airway against dry, cold air. And exercising during warmer times of the day can help as well.

5. It’s important to recognize red flags

Unfortunately, EIA can trigger an asthma attack that doesn’t respond to albuterol or other inhalers. Patients who experience severe shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing, dizziness, blue lips or fingernails, or difficulty speaking should seek immediate medical attention since asthma attacks can be fatal if patients don’t receive emergent care in a hospital.

Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant