Olympic Wheezers

This week, some of the world’s premier athletes will gather in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics.  As a group, they carry not only their nation’s hopes but also a disproportionate tendency to wheeze when exercising.

Half of all elite cross-country skiers and almost as many world-class ice skaters and hockey players have been diagnosed with a condition known as exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB) in which asthma-like symptoms appear only in association with vigorous exercise.

As the winter athletes exercise, their breathing becomes faster and they inhale air that is drier and cooler than that in the respiratory tree.  The resulting loss of heat and water from the lungs causes damage to airways which triggers inflammation and narrowing and produces the characteristic wheeze.

According to Dr. William Storms, a member of the Sports Medicine Committee of the U.S. Olympic Committee and author of Challenges in the Management of Exercise-Induced Asthma, “The next 5 years will bring increased awareness of EIB along with a better understanding of how exercise and air quality affect lung symptoms. In the meantime, we probably will see more athletes using masks to filter, warm, and humidify their inhaled air.”

For our non-Olympian readers of Word on Health, there are simple steps that you can take to reduce the risk of asthma symptoms during cold weather. Breathe through your nose rather than your mouth, cover your mouth with a face mask or scarf to warm and humidify the air being inhaled, and warm-up before exercising. If symptoms continue, then it is time to consult a doctor and perhaps consider an indoor gym.

In the meantime, while watching the downhill drama and the spectacular skaters, keep an eye out for wheezing among the winners.