What Is Exercise-Induced Asthma?

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

Medically reviewed in June 2022

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.

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