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You are not out of shape: you may have exercise asthma

Exercise asthma is common
Exercise asthma is common
AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Do you step on the treadmill or elliptical machine and feel like you can’t breathe within a few minutes? Do you go outside to run with your dog only to stop at the end of your street out of breath? The reason you are experiencing shortness of breath may not be that you are out of shape – you may be suffering from exercise asthma.

Exercise asthma happens more often in cold air and is characterized by bronchospasms - a contraction (or spasm) of lung airways. Experts aren't certain what lies behind this phenomenon. One theory is that the increased blood flow caused by exertion forces the blood vessels in the airways to expand, leading to constriction of the airways. Another theory holds that cold air activates certain inflammatory cells in the airways. The evaporative loss and cooling of the airways triggers the process of bronchial constriction. Exercise asthma is a fairly common phenomenon, not only among general population but also among the Olympic athletes.

What can you do to prevent an episode of exercise asthma? The easiest thing is to exercise in a warmer and more humid environment, engaging in sports like swimming, for example. However, keep in mind that exercising in hot, humid climates brings other problems, such as overheating and dehydration. If you do exercise in colder weather or an air-conditioned gym, you can use a bronchodilator. Usually delivered via rescue inhalers, drugs (such as albuterol) fight the symptoms by relaxing the muscles that line the airways in the lungs. Take two puffs about 15 minutes before your exercise and your breathing will remain normal. Warming up for a few minutes before hitting full exercise mode, breathing through your nose (to warm and humidify the air before it hits your airways), and wearing a scarf or a facemask around your mouth can also prevent symptoms.

Sources: Amanda Gardner - CNN