Playing Out of Breath

Athletes young and old need to recognize the symptoms of exercise-induced asthma

Asthma affects millions of people in the United States, and the number of new cases is rising faster for children than for adults. The common symptoms of asthma—shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing—can be triggered by allergens such as tree and grass pollens, mold, and dust mites, bad colds, and secondhand smoke. But for some people, it can also be triggered by exercise.

“I treat a fair number of teenagers that have exercise-induced asthma,” says pulmonologist M. Judith Porter, MD. Often, a person’s exercise schedule will impact their level of treatment. Dr. Porter notes that with teenagers and sports, there is not only a strenuous regimen involved but also the pressure from peers and coaches.

“Sometimes kids will push it because they’re young and they can perhaps tolerate the symptoms of asthma better than adults can,” Porter says. “But if they have these symptoms, it’s very important for them to get evaluated.”

New patients are given basic breathing tests and screened for allergies. Dr. Porter also checks for signs of congenital heart disease and inherited forms of emphysema. Inhalers, which deliver medication directly into a person’s airways, are often prescribed for teenagers who have been diagnosed with asthma.

“With treatment, we can sometimes get teenagers back up to their playing level, but they will have to be more cautious than their teammates,” Porter says. “Coaches especially need to be aware of this. Without access to inhalers and appropriate treatment, these kids can get very sick and, in some cases, can even die.”

Dr. Porter says even the drifting smoke from a forest fire 200 miles away can trigger symptoms for a player on the field.

“Listen to an athlete when he or she comes to you and says I can’t run because I’m wheezing or short of breath,” Porter says. “Don’t jump to a conclusion that they’re exaggerating to get out of running. They may not be.”
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