When top athletes are puzzled by a drop in their performance, one very possible reason may surprise them. Studies show that up to 50 per cent of elite athletes, depending on their sport, suffer from symptoms of asthma, which is often difficult to diagnose in such fit individuals.
Respirologist Dr. Jim Lewis, who treats many athletes at the Asthma Centre of St. Joseph’s Hospital, says competitive exercise and prolonged exposure to cold air, chlorine or air pollutants and pollens are believed to cause asthma in athletes. Most at risk are elite cross country skiers, hockey players, figure skaters, speed skaters, long distance runners, and swimmers.
For most people with asthma, exercise is usually one of several triggers. In athletes, it’s often the only trigger, and symptoms are only apparent at very intense levels of exertion making it difficult to detect in a normal pulmonary testing setting, explains Dr. Lewis.
Athletes tend to attribute their decline in performance to deconditioning, having a bad day, not being in shape or to other causes, and don’t receive the treatment they need.
“It’s key that athletes receive proper asthma treatment, which prevents more severe disease,” says Dr. Lewis. “Yet the athlete often doesn’t want to take medication or is afraid to because of misconceptions about the drugs used for asthma.”
Inhaled steroids, the cornerstone of asthma treatment, are not absorbed into the blood stream. They are an anti-inflammatory, not an anabolic steroid - the kind prohibited in sports. And some athletes only need preventative puffers, which are not steroids at all.
Asthma is treatable and reversible, Dr. Lewis points out. “Untreated, the consequences are irreversible lung disease. It’s important to pay attention to your symptoms and be honest about it to determine if you need medication.”
Signs of asthma in athletes
- Performance starts to decline
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness five to 15 minutes after starting to work out
- Abdominal pain, cramps