women walking You have just finished a great workout when you start coughing. You have a hard time breathing, and your chest feels tight. Did you push yourself too hard? Maybe. But you are not out of shape. At least, you did not think so. But this is not the first time this has happened after you have exercised.

Sound familiar? If so, then you may have exercise-induced asthma (EIA). Simply put, EIA is asthma that is triggered by exercise. It most commonly strikes after 6-10 minutes of exercise. It may go away 30-60 minutes after you are done exercising.

Symptoms include:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired
  • Lacking endurance during exercise

Symptoms often increase when air pollutants, pollen, or cold, dry air is present. That is why EIA is more common in cold weather sports like speed skating, figure skating, and cross-country skiing.

Causes and Risk Factors

It is not completely clear why what causes EIA. A theory is that during exercise, you breath differently, usually more quickly and through the mouth. This affects your lungs because the air that you are inhaling has not had time to be warmed and moistened, the way that it is when you breath through your nose. The cooler and dryer airways cause the muscles around the airways to tighten, which in turn leads to asthma symptoms

Certain factors increase your risk of developing EIA. For example, if you have asthma or severe rhinitis (hay fever), you may be more likely to experience EIA.

Diagnosis: No Need To Skip Exercise

Unfortunately, EIA is often overlooked and misdiagnosed, which can lead to bigger health problems down the road. "If people don't get the condition diagnosed, they either won't exercise or they stop exercising," says William Storms, MD, an allergist with Asthma and Allergy Associates in Colorado Springs, CO. Storms also adds that a good diagnosis involves a breathing test usually performed after exercising.

Treatments Help Keep You Active

Treatment options for EIA are numerous. The best option varies from person to person and may include medicines that are either inhaled or swallowed. Using medicines called short-acting beta-2 agonists 10-15 minutes before exercise may be the most effective choice to prevent EIA.

Because treatment is available, EIA should not prohibit anybody from being active. "Everybody should be able to participate in exercise at any level they want," Storms says.

Preventing EIA

The key to preventing or reducing the frequency of EIA is to exercise sensibly. Talk to your doctor about what measures would work best for you. Here are some general guidelines to follow:

  • Use your inhaler.—Use an inhaler 15 minutes before exercising if your doctor recommends it. Carry it with you while you are exercising, and use it if you experience asthma symptoms. If you do not have medicine with you when you experience EIA, move into the warmest, most humid place you can find. "This helps heat and moisten the airways," Wenzel says.
  • Consider adding swimming to your exercise program.—Because the air is warmer and moister when swimming, there is less chance of an EIA attack. The only water sport that people susceptible to EIA should avoid is scuba diving, Storms says. The pressurized air that you breathe increases the risk of an asthma attack. Also, keep in mind that a heavily chlorinated pool may trigger your asthma symptoms.
  • Take precautions during colder weather.—Wear a face mask or scarf over your nose and mouth when exercising in cold weather, says Sally Wenzel, MD, a staff physician with the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, Colorado. This warms the air before it reaches your lungs.
  • Breathe through your nose.—Although this may be difficult as the intensity of your workout increases, breathing through your nose helps warm the air before it reaches your airways.
  • If you are sensitive to pollen, exercise indoors when pollen counts are high.—If you have to exercise outside, talk to your doctor about adjusting your medicine to manage your asthma, Storms says.
  • Warm up before exercising.—If recommended by your doctor, warm up for 15 minutes before starting your routine.
  • Take a break if you are sick.—Avoid exercising when you have a cold or the flu or when your daily asthma is not under control.
  • Watch the intensity of your workouts.—"The more intense the workout," Storms says, "the more severe the symptoms tend to be."