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13th February, 20214 min read

What is exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (exercise-induced asthma)?

Medical reviewer:Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author:Daniel Piggott
Last reviewed: 03/02/2021
Medically reviewed

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Have you ever found yourself unusually short of breath after a run or a game of football? There are several possible causes, but it could be because you have exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, also known as exercise-induced asthma.

Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction or exercise-induced asthma is a narrowing of the airways in your lungs that’s brought on by exercise.

Symptoms usually come on during or just after exercise and include:

  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • chest tightness

What causes exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (exercise-induced asthma)?

When you exercise, you tend to breathe faster, and breathe through your mouth more. This means that when air reaches your lungs, it’s colder and drier than it would be if it had been filtered through your nose. In some people, the lungs react to this cold, dry air by narrowing their airways – which leads to asthma symptoms.

When you’re exercising, certain environmental conditions can worsen exercise-induced bronchoconstriction or exercise-induced asthma, depending on other asthma triggers you may have. These include:

  • cold weather
  • dry air
  • air pollution
  • high levels of pollen
  • dust mites
  • mould
  • chemicals in cleaning products

How do you reduce the risk of exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (exercise-induced asthma)?

As people who get exercise-induced bronchoconstriction or exercise-induced asthma usually have asthma, the best way of helping to avoid it is making sure you’re managing your asthma. It’s very important to have a personal action plan, which can be organised with your doctor.

Steps you can take include:

  • using a preventer inhaler regularly and correctly
  • using a reliever inhaler correctly if you get symptoms
  • checking the weather forecast and avoiding exercising in cold weather, or when there are higher levels of pollution or pollen, depending on your triggers
  • spending 10-15 minutes warming up and down properly before and after exercise

It’s still important to exercise if you have asthma, and working out your triggers for exercise-induced bronchoconstriction or exercise-induced asthma can help you to plan around it. If cold weather is a trigger, you could try:

  • exercising indoors instead
  • choosing a more gentle form of exercise – such as walking rather than running
  • keeping your chest and throat covered
  • wearing a scarf around your nose to help warm the air

When to get medical help for exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (exercise-induced asthma)

If you’re getting the symptoms of exercise-induced bronchoconstriction or exercise-induced asthma, you should see your doctor. They may want to do some tests to see if you have asthma, or improve your asthma management.

Asthma is a serious condition, so if you’re at all concerned, you should speak to your doctor.

Call for emergency medical help if you think you are having an asthma attack and:

  • you don’t have your inhaler with you (or you don’t have one)
  • you feel worse even though you’ve used your inhaler
  • you don’t feel better after taking 10 puffs on your inhaler
  • you’re worried at any point

If you have an inhaler (usually blue), take one puff of your inhaler every 30-60 seconds, up to a maximum of 10 puffs. Do this every 15 minutes until medical help arrives.

While waiting for help, sit upright (do not lie down) and try to take slow, steady breaths. Try to remain calm, as panicking will make things worse.

Key points

  • exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (exercise-induced asthma) is the narrowing of the airways in the lungs as a result of exercise
  • symptoms include shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing and coughing
  • it can be managed with a personal action plan, by avoiding triggers and planning exercise around potential triggers
  • if you’re having an asthma attack that can’t be relieved with an inhaler or you do not have an inhaler, get emergency medical help
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