How can you tell if you have exercise-induced asthma or just plain asthma? Read on to learn more about the differences between them.

What Is Bronchoconstriction?

Exercise-induced asthma is now known as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB). Bronchoconstriction occurs when bronchial tubes become narrow and restrict airflow.

Asthma and EIB can have similar symptoms, but EIB is triggered by physical activity. Asthma, which is a constant inflammation of the airways, can have many triggers.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, exercise-induced asthma — but only 10 percent of people who don’t have asthma will experience it.

What Are the Triggers?

Doctors once thought that breathing cold air made EIB worse. But new research indicates that dry air, rather than temperature, is the trigger.

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, cold air typically contains less moisture. Quickly breathing dry air dehydrates the bronchial tubes, causing them to narrow and restrict airflow, triggering EIB.

Other potential asthma triggers include environmental irritants like pollution, high pollen counts, perfume, chemicals, cleaners, paint, and chlorine in swimming pools.

Symptoms of EIB, which are very similar to those for asthma, include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. Symptoms typically occur five to 10 minutes after exercise begins, and often get worse after you stop exercising. A second wave of less severe symptoms may occur four to 12 hours after you exercise.

Can You Prevent It?

Covering your nose and mouth with a scarf during exercise in cold or dry weather can sometimes help prevent attacks. So can a good warmup before exercising. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that a preworkout warmup of about 20 minutes, consisting of several three- to five-minute bouts of high-intensity and variable intensity interval exercises, can help prevent EIB symptoms and stave them off for at least 80 minutes afterward, without the use of medications.

There are three types of treatment doctors may advise for EIB:

  • Short-acting bronchodilators used to prevent symptoms should be taken 10 to 15 minutes before exercise. They also can be used for quick relief during an EIB attack.
  • Long-acting bronchodilators can be taken 30 to 60 minutes before activity but should only be used once within a 12-hour period.
  • Mast cell stabilizers can prevent late-phase reactions and should be taken 15 to 20 minutes before activity. Unlike short-acting bronchodilators, they do not relieve symptoms once an attack begins.

EIB doesn’t have to interfere with your life or limit your activities. There are ways to approach the condition, treat it, and stave off attacks. Always consult your doctor to find the treatment that is best for you.

For more information about EIB and asthma or to schedule an appointment, contact the University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute, part of UPMC’s Comprehensive Lung Center, at 412-648-6161.