If going for a run has you huffing and puffing more than normal, you may have exercise-induced asthma, medically called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction. This type of asthma can be serious and make it hard to do the things you enjoy, Sadia Benzaquen, MD, a pulmonologist and chair of the pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine department at the Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, tells SELF. “It can impact your life—you may not be able to go for a hike with friends or play a soccer game without feeling uncomfortable,” he says.
The good news is that exercise-induced asthma is totally treatable—and it doesn’t have to interfere with your workouts. In fact, experts say exercise can actually help you manage asthma1 as long as you’re following your doctor’s instructions for doing it safely.
Ahead is everything you need to know about exercise-induced asthma, including tips for maintaining your exercise regimen.
What is exercise-induced asthma?
As its name implies, exercise-induced asthma is when you experience trouble breathing while pushing yourself physically.
Asthma is a condition that happens when the airways in your lungs become inflamed and narrowed, resulting in symptoms like chest tightness and pain, coughing, a whistling sound when you breathe (wheezing), and shortness of breath, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Some people only experience this while they’re working out, hence the name “exercise-induced asthma.”
Experts often refer to exercise-induced asthma with the more specific name “exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.” This is to clarify that while strenuous exercise may trigger the airways in your lungs to narrow (known as bronchoconstriction), it’s not a root cause of asthma, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Geoffrey Chupp, MD, a pulmonologist at the Yale School of Medicine, tells SELF that some people can have exercise-induced asthma and no other asthma symptoms outside of strenuous activities. Other individuals may have asthma that can strike at any time but gets triggered when they exercise.
About 90% of people with asthma experience symptoms when they exercise, and about 10% of people only have exercise-induced bronchospasm, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Either way, Dr. Chupp says he considers exercise asthma “real asthma.”
What causes exercise-induced asthma?
Though there may be many causes of exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, experts have pinpointed one main factor. “Because you’re inhaling a large volume of air beyond what you normally would, an inflammatory reaction occurs and causes narrowing of the airways and mucus production,” Emily Pennington, MD, a pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF.
While physical activity is the main trigger of exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, different factors can trigger an attack or make it worse, according to the Mayo Clinic.
What are the most common exercise-induced asthma triggers?
If an attack strikes every time you’re active, it’s important to understand asthma triggers that can force your airways to constrict and lead to asthma symptoms2:
- Activities that require a lot of deep breathing, like long-distance running, swimming, or soccer
- Cold or dry air
- Air pollution
- High pollen counts
- Swimming pool chlorine
- Having a respiratory infection or lung disease3
What are the symptoms of exercise-induced asthma?
Just like with chronic asthma, exercise-induced bronchoconstriction can lead to symptoms like coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and pain, and shortness of breath. But you can also experience exercise-specific issues, like an abnormal level of fatigue during your workouts. All of this can make people feel out of shape when they’re actually not.
These symptoms can start just a few minutes into a workout session, but like with most health conditions, everyone is different. “I’ve had patients be well into exercise and then all of a sudden they can’t function,” Raymond Casciari, MD, a pulmonologist at Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, tells SELF.
While exercise-induced asthma symptoms can be different from person to person, and range from mild to severe, here are some common signs to watch out for: