What Is Exercise-Induced Asthma?

Why a workout makes you wheeze—and what to do about it.

What Is Exercise-Induced Asthma?

If you have asthma, maybe you've given up on exercise. Knowing that you won't be able to breathe while talking a brisk walk, playing sports or doing other activities might have turned you off to physical fitness. Unfortunately, exercise is a common trigger for asthma attacks. But that doesn't mean you have to write off getting in shape.

Symptoms and triggers
Signs of exercise-induced asthma include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or chest tightness during or after exercise. These symptoms typically peak 5 to 10 minutes after stopping the exercise, and they usually clear up in another 20 to 30 minutes.

This type of asthma is most common during longer periods of exercise, and is especially triggered by breathing in cold air. But it can also be triggered by chlorine in pools, chemicals at ice rinks and air pollution.

Prevention
There are some simple things you can do to help prevent an asthma attack while exercising:

  • Warm up for at least 10 minutes before physical activity.
  • Cover your mouth and nose in cold weather.
  • Avoid exercising outdoors if you have seasonal allergies (including fall allergies).
  • End your workout by cooling down slowly.

Treatment
While symptoms usually go away in an hour, most doctors recommend taking medicine—both for prevention and treatment.

Using certain inhalers before you exercise can help prevent symptoms. Short-acting beta-agonists—what's probably inside your rescue inhaler—usually begin working in 15 to 30 minutes and last for two to three hours. But daily use of these is not recommended. Inhaled ipratropium can also relax the airways in your lungs and may work for some people as a preventive step.

But to get at the root of the problem, you should think about your long-term control meds. Exercise-induced symptoms often mean that asthma is not under control. Make an appointment with your doctor to talk about how to better manage your asthma, whether that means stepping up your dose or a trying different drug therapy. Together you can find a way for you to breathe easy and get moving again.

Medically reviewed in April 2018.

More On Asthma

My Story: Elizabeth and Severe Asthma

article

My Story: Elizabeth and Severe Asthma
Diagnosed as a baby, Elizabeth has been living with severe asthma her entire life. In this video, she describes the severe asthma attack that was the ...
5 Possible Reasons Your Asthma Is Not Under Control

article

5 Possible Reasons Your Asthma Is Not Under Control
Asthma that is not well controlled can have a number of consequences. Uncontrolled asthma can make it difficult to keep up with day-to-day responsibil...
Causes of Asthma and Controlling Attacks

article

Causes of Asthma and Controlling Attacks
If you routinely steer clear of nasty fumes (from bus exhaust to strong cleaning sprays), clouds of dust, and smoke from tobacco-puffing buddies, you'...
How to Use Devices for Asthma and Allergies

video

How to Use Devices for Asthma and Allergies
Do you know the proper way to use an asthma inhaler or epinephrine pen? In this Health Smarts video, Kevin Soden, MD, shares tips for using these devi...