Exercise Induced Asthma

Exercise induced asthma (EIA) occurs when a person begins to experience asthma symptoms brought on by exercise or while engaging in high energy physical activity such as sports. It is especially likely to occur during colder weather and symptoms may include shortness of breath, a feeling of pressure or tightness in the chest, wheezing, coughing, sore throat, headache, and fatigue. Symptoms can last up to one hour, but have been known to last for several days.


While the exact cause of exercise induced asthma hasn’t yet been pinpointed, the most widely accepted theory suggests that the hard and fast deep breathing brought on by exercise allows the passageways in the lungs to become overly cool and dry. When that happens the muscles of the lungs begin to tighten and become narrower, irritating the lining of the lungs which then leads to inflammation and the formation of mucous. As these things occur the sufferer will begin to feel the familiar asthma like symptoms that make it harder to breathe.

The following are common triggers of EIA attacks in those who are susceptible:

  • Participating in sports activities during cold weather when the air is dryer. Reports of EIA attacks rise in winter.

  • Exercise – This includes any form of gym or sport activity which increases the rate of breaths taken per minute over an extended period of time. EIA attacks may also be triggered by not properly preparing for gym routines or sporting activities like football.

  • Exposure to irritants – Exercising or playing sports in close proximity to things that may aggravate the lungs can cause an EIA episode. These irritants may include pet dander, dust, pollen, tobacco smoke, and chemicals like chlorine.


After taking a medical history and asking about other medical conditions the patient might have, a doctor who suspects someone may have exercise induced asthma is likely to do tests that can confirm the diagnoses. Two of the tests that doctors often use are:

  • Monitored exercise – While being closely monitored by medical staff a patient will walk or run on a treadmill or use at stationary bike at certain speeds. A spirometer, a device that measures air output from your lungs, will be used before and after.

  • Peak flow – This device measures and records the volume and rate of a patient’s exhalations.

Managing EIA with Inhalers and Corticosteroids

If you’re worried about suffering from an asthma attack during a workout, your best course of action is to take preventative measures with your inhaler before you begin physical activity. Using the device 10 to 15 minutes before you become active has been shown to eliminate the risk for an asthma attack or at least lessen the symptoms if one occurs—however, only inhalers that use medications like albuterol or cromolyn sodium are recommended for this approach. 

Corticosteroids may also be used in treatment along with preventative measures such as adequate warm ups before exercising and limiting activity on days when the pollen is high or the air quality is low due to pollution. A healthy diet which helps to fight off infections will also help keep EIA attacks to a minimum, allowing EIA patients to continue enjoying their active lifestyle.

Last Updated: November 10, 2016