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Sports and Fitness for Kids with Asthma

Exercise can trigger symptoms in kids with asthma, but help is available.

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Updated September 06, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

In kids with asthma, prevention is a big part of the treatment plan. So knowing what triggers a kid's asthma reactions is important.

Many kids with asthma experience exercise-induced asthma (so do some kids who haven't been diagnosed with asthma at all). With exercise-induced asthma, also called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, kids typically cough, feel short of breath and experience a tight feeling in the chest. These symptoms usually occur about 10 or 15 minutes after they start exercising, and only subside after 30 to 60 minutes of rest. (Normal shortness of breath following vigorous physical activity will go away after just a few minutes of rest.)

However, kids with asthma triggered by exercise don't need to avoid physical activity; sports and fitness will still provide benefits. Instead, if your child has asthma, be alert to conditions that cause symptoms. If these include exercise, talk to your child's doctor about how to help. Your physician may recommend treatment with an inhaler prior to exercise. If your child is physically active during the day, and it isn't practical to take an inhaler treatment before exercise, the doctor may suggest a longer-acting inhaler or a medicine taken by mouth.

The Right Sports for Kids with Asthma

Every child is different, but most kids with asthma can play almost any sport they choose, as long as the right treatment plan is in place. Be aware of the kinds of asthma triggers associated with certain activities:

Endurance sports, such as running or bicycling long distances, can be challenging for kids with asthma because they require sustained, high-intensity physical activity. Sports like soccer and basketball can be challenging because players spend almost the whole game running. But in such sports as football and baseball, players get breaks between plays and when switching from offense to defense. Gymnastics, martial arts and many aquatic or track-and-field events require short bursts of activity with pauses in between so players can catch their breath.

Winter sports are often difficult for kids with asthma because inhaling cold air can make asthma symptoms worse. Sometimes it helps to cover the nose and mouth with a scarf, bandana, neck gaiter or balaclava to warm the inhaled air. This is useful for skiing or even for informal outdoor snow play.

Outdoor sports can pose a problem if your child with asthma is sensitive to environmental allergens (like pollen or mold). Your child may need to avoid playing outside on days when the pollen count is especially high. After-school sports often occur at peak smog times. Parents and coaches can check airnow.gov for the air quality index for the day (and a forecast for the next). Asthmatics and other sensitive individuals should avoid vigorous outdoor exercise when the AQI is above 100. Again, talk to your child's doctor about the right asthma treatment plan—usually some combination of medication plus trigger avoidance when practical.

Indoor sports may also be a challenge if they expose kids with asthma to such allergens as dust mites or chemicals. While the warm, moist air of indoor swimming pools is easier on asthmatic lungs than cold outdoor air, sometimes chlorine or other cleaning products can be irritating. Some studies have found that infants and teens exposed to chlorinated indoor pools are more likely to develop asthma and other respiratory problems. But other research has shown an improvement in asthma symptoms and lung function in kids who swim.

Sources:

O'Byrne P. Patient Information. Accessed February 13, 2011. Exercise Induced Asthma.

American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Accessed February 13, 2011. Exercising with Allergies and Asthma.

Bernard A, Nickmilder M et al. Impact of Chlorinated Swimming Pool Attendance on the Respiratory Health of Adolescents. Pediatrics Vol. 124 No. 4 October 1, 2009.

Bernard A, Carbonelle S et al. Infant Swimming Practice, Pulmonary Epithelium Integrity, and the Risk of Allergic and Respiratory Diseases Later in Childhood. Pediatrics Vol. 119 No. 6 June 1, 2007.

Skripak JM. Swimming Pool Attendance, Asthma, Allergies, and Lung Function in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children Cohort. Pediatrics Vol. 128 No. Supplement 3 October 1, 2011.

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