The coughing and wheezing of asthma can affect anyone — in fact, nearly 10 percent of all Olympic athletes have been diagnosed with Exercise-Induced Asthma (EIA). Almost 15 percent of children are affected by asthma, and about 90 percent of those children will have EIA, though it frequently goes undiagnosed.
Asthma is a problem that involves the airways deep in the lungs which have a very thin lining and an outer layer of muscle. When an airway is irritated the muscles contract and the lining swells, producing extra mucus. If the airway narrows only slightly, cough and chest tightness will occur. However, if swelling is severe, wheezing, coughing and drying of the airway can develop.
Colds and smoke are the strongest asthma triggers in children, but exercise is the most common. Coughing and difficulty breathing can occur five to 10 minutes after vigorous activity is begun though EIA symptoms can be as slight as a child not feeling he is able to perform as well as he should be able to. Sports like cross-country skiing and running when performed in cold or dry weather are more likely to produce an attack than climate-controlled sports such as swimming.
You should suspect EIA if your child complains of coughing, difficulty breathing, chest tightness or wheezing either during or after exercise. Pay attention to the presence of any coughing or chronic respiratory symptoms surrounding exercise, as EIA is often a sign of undiagnosed asthma. Consult your health care provider if you think your child might need short- or long-term medication for asthma or EIA.
To help prevent EIA symptoms, dress your child in a scarf or ski mask during exercise in cold or dry air. Many athletes find that warming up for 15 minutes, to the point of mild wheezing, followed by a cool down to normal breathing, allows them to engage in vigorous exercise for up to two hours with few symptoms. Medication should still be taken to control mild symptoms.
Susan Matherly is director at A Children’s Place, a service of Ephraim McDowell Health. She has a bachelor’s degree in health and exercise science and a master’s degree in public health education. She can be contacted at (859) 236-7176.