Winter Olympians Affected by Asthma

Strenuous outdoor training in frigid conditions can lead to exercise-induced asthma for many winter Olympians.

To admiring sports fans, the feats of athleticism accomplished by competitors in the Winter Olympics often seem graceful, even effortless. Spectators may be surprised to learn, then, that as many as half of all winter Olympians suffer from a respiratory condition called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) or exercise-induced asthma.

Winter athletes are disproportionately affected by EIB, which causes wheezing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, and unusual fatigue after bouts of intense exercise. No cure has been found, but research investigating the mechanics of the condition is leading scientists in a new direction, the New York Times’ Gretchen Reynolds reports.

Like ordinary asthma, EIB is caused by inflammation of the airways that results in obstructed breathing. Previously, researchers focused on the temperature of cold air as the primary trigger. Most believed the lungs behaved like cold hands, tightening blood vessels to keep warm.

Newer studies examining hydration levels in athletes have experts thinking more about dryness, however. According to the new theory, cells overcompensate for dry winter air by releasing moisture into the lungs. Once the cells’ stores of moisture are exhausted, they begin releasing chemicals that trigger an allergic reaction and subsequent inflammatory response.

The dryness theory does little to help elite winter athletes, whose demanding outdoor training schedules put them at greater risk for developing EIB. According to Christopher Randolph, MD, of Yale University’s Center for Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, studies of retired athletes indicate that less training improves lung function—but that is hardly a solution for the current generation of winter Olympians. As Dr. Randolph and his colleagues seek a cause and a cure for EIB, Olympians must continue to depend on approved medications to help manage their asthma.

For ordinary exercisers experiencing EIB this winter, Dr. Randolph recommends breathing through the nose, wearing a face mask, and warming up thoroughly before exercising outdoors. If asthmatic episodes persist, patients should visit a doctor to discuss medication options.