Out of breath runner

Sports-induced asthma is when your airways narrow during exercise. This narrowing causes you to wheeze, cough, or have shortness of breath.

This problem is often called exercise-induced asthma. But doctors today prefer the term exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, or EIB. It’s a mouthful, but using this term instead helps set the record straight.

First, while exercise may cause an asthma-like episode, it doesn’t cause asthma. Also, EIB isn’t the same as a chronic condition such as asthma.

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, as many as 90% of people with asthma also have EIB. But not everyone with EIB has asthma.

In fact, EIB can happen to people who have no history of asthma. Many athletes and active people deal with EIB, and it doesn’t hold them back.

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EIB Causes and Symptoms

When you start exercising, you breathe faster. But when the air is dry and cold, it sucks the moisture out of your airways (or bronchial tubes). This lack of moisture makes your airways narrow. And when airways are narrower, it’s harder to breathe.

We know now that dry air, rather than cold air, is usually the main trigger. Cold air just happens to have less moisture than warm air. Pollution, pollen, smoke, paint fumes, and strong odors like perfume also can be EIB triggers.

It’s normal to feel out of breath when you exercise, but people with EIB have a stronger reaction than a little huffing and puffing. With EIB, you might:

  • Be very short of breath.
  • Cough and wheeze.
  • Feel tightness in your chest.
  • Feel like you don’t have the endurance to keep going.
  • Have an upset stomach.

EIB symptoms may begin during exercise and will usually be worse 5 to 10 minutes after you stop exercising, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

For some people, the symptoms fade on their own or aren’t severe enough to cause concern. For others, EIB can interfere with their sport or their exercise routine and be frightening and frustrating.

Treatment for EIB

If you have asthma and see an allergist, talk with them about your EIB symptoms. If you need further allergy testing or help managing chronic asthma, your doctor can refer you to an asthma specialist.

Your doctor may prescribe a short-acting bronchodilator that stops symptoms from happening. Taken before exercise, it prevents symptoms for 2 to 4 hours.

There are also longer-acting medicines that you can take along with daily asthma medicine. Using them depends on your diagnosis and how severe your symptoms are, so talk to your doctor.

Here are a few other things you can do to reduce the chance of having an EIB flare up:

  • Take about 15 minutes to warm up before you increase intensity when exercising.
  • Try covering your mouth and nose with a scarf or facemask when exercising in cold weather.
  • Work to breathe through your nose when exercising, because it warms the air first.

To learn more about UPMC Sports Medicine, please call 1-855-937-7678 or contact us online.

About Sports Medicine

Sports and physical activity bring with them a potential for injury. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury – or improve athletic performance – UPMC Sports Medicine and the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program can help. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our experts partner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Pitt Panthers, and about 100 other high school, college, and regional teams and events throughout Pennsylvania – working daily to build better athletes.