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Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction

Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) is a lung condition. EIB is when the tubes that bring air in and out of the lungs suddenly get narrow when you exercise. It is sometimes called exercise-induced asthma. 

You may have EIB if any of these occur after 5 to 10 minutes of exercise:

  • You start to cough

  • Your chests feel tight or you feel chest pain

  • You have trouble breathing

  • You have wheezing

  • You feel too short of breath

EIB can occur in people who don’t have asthma. EIB can even occur in healthy athletes who don’t have asthma. It can also occur in people who have allergies. Exercise can also make asthma symptoms worse in most people who do have asthma.

Triggers

Doctors don't fully know what causes EIB. Breathing in cold, dry, or polluted air is a main factor. During exercise, more air enters the lungs through the mouth, instead of the nose. The air isn’t warm or moist like air that enters through the nose. The cold dry air causes the airways to narrow.

Along with asthma, other risk factors for EIB include:

  • Sensitivity to cold, dry, or polluted air

  • Not being in shape or not being used to exercise

  • Allergies that aren't well controlled, especially for nasal allergies

  • Vocal cord problems

  • High pollen levels

  • Respiratory infection (viral)

Symptoms

If you have EIB, you may have symptoms within minutes of starting to exercise. The symptoms are the same as asthma symptoms.

They may include:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Wheezing or whistling sound with breathing

  • Tightness in the chest

  • Cough

  • Chest pain (uncommon)

The diagnosis

Your healthcare provider will ask about your health history. You will also have a physical exam. You may have tests to see how well your lungs work. The most common test is spirometry. Your breathing will be checked at rest and during exercise. This is called an exercise-challenge test.

Your healthcare provider may advise you to take medicine before or during exercise. You may take an inhaled medicine such as albuterol. This type of medicine is called a rescue or quick-relief medicine. It is used about 15 minutes before exercising. It may also be taken again during or after exercise, if needed.

If you have asthma, you may already use controller medicines. This type of medicine is taken regularly to help prevent symptoms. Inhaled steroids are the most common type. If you don’t already use this kind of medicine, your healthcare provider may prescribe one for you. He or she may want you to take it if rescue medicines are not working.

Managing EIB

Living with EIB doesn’t mean you need to give up exercise. Exercise is important for good health. It also helps keep your lungs and the muscles used for breathing strong. Your body needs exercise. Ask your healthcare provider how to exercise safely and with as few symptoms as possible. Most people who have EIB can exercise safely. Here are tips:

  • Talk with your provider about what exercise is safe for you.

  • Take medicines before exercise, as prescribed.

  • See your healthcare provider if your symptoms get worse or happen more often.

  • Ask your healthcare provider, nurse, or pharmacist how to correctly use your inhaler or medicines.

What you can do

Along with taking medicines, these things can help prevent or ease symptoms of EIB:

  • Don’t exercise outside on cold, dry days. If you are outside in cold weather, cover your mouth with a mask or scarf.

  • Don’t exercise outside when there is a lot of pollen or air pollution. Instead, exercise indoors.

  • Don't smoke.

  • Start an exercise program slowly if you haven’t exercised in a while. Slowly increase how hard and how long you exercise.

  • Warm up and cool down before and after exercise.

  • Try different activities. See which ones work best for you.

  • Take breaks and drink water before, during, and after exercise.

When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider right away if:

  • You are taking medicines for EIB and you are still having symptoms such as:

    • Chest tightness

    • Trouble doing normal activities

    • Breathing fast

  • You have any questions about your medicines or exercise activities

Asthma from any cause that is not under control can be very serious. It can be life threatening. You may need to be treated in an emergency room. You may need to stay in the hospital. EIB can get in the way of an athlete's ability to take part in sports. But exercise is important. It gives many health benefits, especially for people with asthma. So don’t give up on an active lifestyle.

Call

Call right away if:

  • You have trouble breathing, are breathing fast, or feel short of breath

  • You have trouble talking or speaking

  • Your inhaler is not working and your symptoms are worse

  • You feel drowsy

  • Your finger or lips are turning blue or gray (pale)

  • Your peak flow is worse after a treatment or as advised by your provider and asthma action plan

Online Medical Reviewer: Alan J Blaivas DO
Online Medical Reviewer: Amy Finke RN BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Daphne Pierce-Smith RN MSN CCRC
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2018
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