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Exercise Induced Asthma: 700 Olympic Athletes Have It – Do You?

Posted Aug 02 2012 5:10pm

Problem: inhalers aren’t cool. Solution: Suck drugs from Justin Beiber’s torso! Personally I’m going for the My Little Pony option.

“I don’t mean to be rude but I couldn’t help but notice…”

Having just finished my Tabata sprints, I could barely hear the woman over the sound of my own wind-sucking. I wasn’t even sure she was talking to me until I righted myself – I recover from sprints by either sitting or crouching and putting my head between my knees until my vision clears and yes I know I’m a huge dork – and saw her leaning over her treadmill to reach mine. “Wha…?” I gasped, assuming another gym-flashing incident had occurred.

“Well, I don’t usually give people unsolicited advice but I’ve been a nurse for 20 years and I was just noticing your breathing. Can I make an observation?”

I broke into a grin. “Fire away!” My second favorite activity, right after diagnosing myself with random trendy afflictions , is to have strangers diagnose me with them.

“I think you have asthma,” she declared. This isn’t the first time someone has told me they think I may have EIA, or exercise induced asthma (the technical name is  “exercise-induced bronchoconstriction” in case you need something fancy to throw out over dinner with friends and you don’t feel like reading the information tome that comes with your birth control pills), but it was the first time someone offered to actually whip out their stethoscope and listen to my lungs in the gym. (I’d say this was a new high for me but nothing tops the nurse who offered to strip my membranes in the ladies’ locker room when I was overly pregnant with my last baby. No I didn’t take her up on it. Although I was tempted.)

“How can you tell?” I asked.

“First, it’s the high, tight wheezing noise you make. Everyone breathes hard when they run but not everyone wheezes. And second, it’s the cough. Are you sick? Have allergies?” When I shook my head no she continued, “The only time I’ve heard you cough since you came in was during your run and that’s a sign of asthma too.” She also pointed out that asthma tends to run in families and, as it turns out, my sister, my mom and one of my boys has it. Plus I always kinda believed that athletic stuff was harder for me than it was for most people, especially when I was younger. She recommended I see my doctor about getting an inhaler.

Yessss! At last, my geekdom is complete! I’ve had the rest – bad skin, freckles, frizzy hair, buck teeth, thick glasses, polyester gym shorts – but an inhaler was the one nerdy gym-class accessory I never had. I’m so in now. Can I ironically take a puff?

Unfortunately my inhaler may be cooler than I think as it is estimated that about 700 athletes in this year’s Olympic Games have EIA. Even better, according to Alex Hutchinson in Sweat Science , “those athletes will be roughly twice as likely to win a medal as their non-asthmatic peers.” But it’s not because of the awesome steroid drugs, says Hutchinson . “The most likely explanation for the asthmatic advantage is that the incidence of asthma-like symptoms increases in athletes who have done the most training over the longest period of time, due to environmental stresses.” So basically athletes that have been training longer have been exposed to more bad air and are therefore both more likely to have asthma (from the environment) and excel in their sport (from their prolonged training) although the two aren’t related.

Since my Olympic-Dreams ship has sailed and I’m not worried about my athletic performance, is there any point in treating EIA? When I asked my new bestie the nurse this she asked if I ever got chest pain while exercising. “Doesn’t everyone?” was my response. Apparently no, everyone does not. (All this time I thought that pain was a good sign – like it meant my heart was doing some kind of Incredible Hulk growing or something.) And studies have shown that untreated asthma leads to a higher incidence of “cardiac events” and heart disease. Oops.

Good thing I already made an appointment to talk to my doctor about my possible gluten-anxiety link and my hormone issues! She’ll be so excited to me – I might as well wear a name tag that says “My name is Internet Hypochondriac.” WebMD loves me. Real MDs…not so much.

So how do you know if you’re one of the estimated 5% of the population with EIA (and you don’t have the luck of running sprints next to a veteran RN)?

Symptoms of EIA include:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Fatigue during exercise
  • Poor athletic performance
Yeah, I know. Kind of sounds like symptoms of high intensity exercise in general, right? Apparently there are some tests docs can run to see if you have EIA but they’re expensive and time consuming so according to WebMD (and my nurse friend) most doctors will simply prescribe you an inhaler, tell you to take a hit off it 20 minutes pre-exercise and see if it helps. If it does, then yep, you’re asthmatic! If not, then yep, you’re just a wimp! (kidding!)
Other options for treating it, besides a steroid inhaler, are making sure you have a long warm-up before engaging in intense cardio (Huntchinson recommends 20-30 minutes) and increasing your cardiovascular capacity through exercise. There’s one for the irony file: the best thing to heal EIA is the one thing that the EIA makes it difficult to do…
Any of you have asthma or EIA? Anyone else always felt like athleticism didn’t come as easily for them as it did for most people?

 

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