Elite athletes may be the epitome of health and fitness, but their workout-induced glow could be hiding a problem deep in their lungs. A new study of college athletes at Ohio State University (OSU) finds that young sports stars suffer from exercised-induced asthma much more than previously thought.
Researchers studied 107 athletes from 22 different sports at OSU the university's 36 varsity-level sports make it one of the country's largest college athletic departments and found that nearly 40% suffered from exercised-induced asthma, a breathing disorder triggered by physical exertion. Surprisingly, 86% of these asthma sufferers had no prior history of asthma of any kind, and the researchers found no significant difference in prevalence between so-called high-ventilation sports such as running and lower-ventilation sports such as baseball.
The results mirror earlier findings that suggest Olympic level athletes can have as much as a five times greater chance of suffering from exercise-induced asthma as the general population. While it's not clear why intense exercise is linked with greater asthma incidence, experts believe that the large volume of air brought into and out of the lungs during exertion can dehydrate the airways, triggering an inflammatory cascade of immune cells that causes air passages to constrict. "Athletes who are exercising strenuously are losing heat and water vapor in their airways, so they are more prone to developing exercise-induced symptoms," says Dr. Mark Liu, a professor of pulmonary and allergy immunology at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Alternatively, says study author Dr. Jonathan Parsons, it could be that exercise-induced asthma represents the mildest end of an asthma continuum, and that these athletes are actually asthma sufferers who experience their symptoms only during intense exercise. "No one knows for sure," he says, "but we are now looking at people who have exercise-induced asthma and investigating the inflammatory cascade that happens in the airway, comparing people who have been diagnosed with [non-exercise-induced] asthma to people who don't have asthma, to understand what makes them different or the same."
The trick, says Parsons, is diagnosing exercise-induced asthma, which many parents, coaches and even athletes themselves mistake for over-exertion. And you don't have to be an elite athlete to suffer from it; there's no threshold of exercise intensity that causes the condition, so for some people, it might not take much panting. Temperature changes can also trigger exercise-induced asthma working out in the cold brings a large amount of cold air into the lungs, which can cause airways to constrict in response. Fortunately, once it has been recognized, exercise-induced asthma is easily treated with short-acting bronchodilators such as albuterol in the study, using albuterol inhalers helped athletes feel a whole lot better and work out longer. So if you find your lungs burning through every workout, check in with your doctor. There may be a reason for your wheezing and a simple solution to help you breathe easier.