Asthma Myth: Exercise/Sports

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I had no choice but to become a raging Pittsburgh Steelers fan. So when I had the chance to work with Jerome Bettis, former running back for the Steelers and future Hall of Famer, during an Asthma Sports Camp a few years ago, it was a dream come true. I not only admire Jerome for his accomplishments on the football field, but even more so as he did it despite having severe asthma. He is now a spokesman for asthma and allergies, helping to educate the public about these conditions.

Nothing saddens me more than when I learn of a child who cannot participate in athletics or exercise because they have asthma. And it is even more upsetting if I learn that they were told not to participate because of their asthma. Every child with asthma should be able to participate in physical activity without limitations. In fact, regular exercise is one of the best things they can do to help their lungs.

Anyone with asthma can experience coughing, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or chest tightness when they try to exercise. Some children may only have these symptoms with exercise, and not at any other times. Regardless, there are a few steps that can help them all.

  • Reliever medicine first: The primary treatment for asthma symptoms triggered by exercise is to use a short acting bronchodilator (most commonly, albuterol) at least 15-20 minutes before exercise. It is very important to use the medicine correctly, ideally with a spacer or holding chamber, to get the most benefit.
  • Warm up: A brief warm up period before maximal exertion can help prevent symptoms as well.
  • Know when to rest: If symptoms still occur during exercise, then the child needs to stop activity, use albuterol immediately (no need to wait 4 hours in between doses when used for exercise) and rest until symptoms completely resolve.

Many athletes are reluctant to either use their albuterol or remove themselves from activity, afraid of how they may look in front of other kids. What they don’t realize, however, is that they will actually be able to perform much better if they follow the few simple steps outlined above. Of course, these steps are in addition to any daily controller medication that may have already been prescribed.

Jerome Bettis was diagnosed with asthma when he passed out while trying out for football at 14 years of age. With proper management, he went on to have an illustrious career playing professional football. He is just one example of many athletes who were able to overcome their asthma and excel at sports. While I can’t guarantee my patients with asthma will play professional sport one day, at the very least, I can do my best to help them participate in athletics and improve their overall health.

David Stukus, MD
Dr. David Stukus is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Section of Allergy and Immunology, at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Dr. Dave, as his patients call him, is passionate about increasing awareness for allergies and asthma. His personal life is filled with fun and chaos as he is married to a Pediatric Emergency Room physician and they have 2 energetic children. His rare free time is spent following his beloved Pittsburgh and Ohio State sports teams. Follow Dr. Dave on Twitter @AllergyKidsDoc for great allergy/asthma tips!

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