Signs to be aware of when exercising with Asthma

What are the symptoms to look out for when you are active?

When you exercise it's normal for your heart to beat faster and your breathing to be quicker. If you're doing vigorous activity you'll feel out of breath, hot and sweaty.

Make sure you can tell the difference between feeling out of breath through exercising, which is normal, and the symptoms of asthma. Then you can stop and take your reliever if you need to. Ask your doctor or nurse about what symptoms to look out for.

Remember, exercise won't harm your lungs. When you feel short of breath, it's a sign that your body is working harder. If you control your breathing you'll be able to keep going for longer.

When exercising it's normal if:

  • you're breathing faster and harder
  • your heart is beating faster
  • you're feeling hot and sweaty
  • you're looking flushed

Stop exercising if you:

  • start coughing/wheezing
  • are gasping for air/very short of breath/can't get enough air
  • feel tightness in the chest
  • have trouble speaking in short sentences
  • younger children may complain that their chest or tummy hurts

You're having an asthma attack if any of these happen:

  • your reliever inhaler doesn't help
  • your symptoms are getting worse (cough, breathlessness, wheeze or tight chest)
  • you're too breathless to speak
  • cyanosis (a blue tinge on the skin or lips). This is a sign of lack of oxygen in the blood and means you need urgent medical attention

Click here for information on what to do in an asthma attack

If exercise triggers your asthma

Exercise can be a trigger for asthma. This can happen to anybody with asthma: children or adults, people who play sports or elite athletes.

How does exercise trigger asthma?

It's not known exactly how exercise triggers asthma. When people exercise they breathe faster. This makes it more difficult for the nose and upper airways to warm up and add moisture to the air breathed in, so the air is drier and colder than usual. It's thought that this cold, dry air in the airways triggers the symptoms of asthma.

Managing exercise-triggered asthma

Asthma shouldn't stop you doing any type of exercise as long as you:

  • see your doctor regularly
  • keep your asthma well controlled
  • take the right medicine
  • slowly build up the amount of exercise you do and the level of intensity, starting with gentle exercise before trying more vigorous activities.

Factors that may trigger asthma when exercising include:

  • continuous physical activity
  • long distance and cross country running (as this often talks place outside in cold air and without breaks)
  • high intensity exercise
  • low physical fitness
  • cold, dry air
  • recent respiratory infection
  • some adventure sports or outdoor activities may bring on asthma symptoms. This is more likely to be related to emotional or environmental factors associated with the activity, e.g. excitement, anxiety, stress, weather, pollen count, altitude.
  • fitness tests
  • dusty equipment
  • chlorine in swimming pools

Activities less likely to trigger asthma

Activities that require short bursts of energy alternated with slower paced exercise are less likely to trigger asthma. These include:

  • team games such as football, hockey, netball and volleyball
  • badminton or table tennis, as they are slower than tennis or squash
  • field games, like cricket or rounders
  • swimming, as the warm humid air is less likely to trigger asthma, but chlorine used in pools or cold pools may be a trigger for some people
  • yoga, Pilates or t'ai chi, provide a workout for both your body and mind. Postures are performed in harmony with breathing techniques. Some people find that breathing techniques are helpful for their asthma. However, don't stop taking your normal asthma medicines unless your doctor or asthma nurse advises you to
  • low-moderate intensity exercise, e.g. walking, cycling, yoga

Asthma that only comes on with exercise

Some people find that they have symtoms of asthma only when they exercise and not at any other time. This is unusual and affects only a small number of people. It is sometimes called exercise-induced asthma.

What would the symptoms be?

The symptoms are the same and include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and difficulty in breathing. Symptoms usually begin after exercise and worsen about 15 minutes after exercise stops.

If you think you have asthma that comes on only when you exercise let your GP or asthma nurse know. To help you manage your asthma they may ask you to record some peak flow readings during and after exercise.

Asthma brought on by exercise is still treated the same, usually with preventer and reliever inhalers. The good news is that many top athletes have asthma and are still able to complete at a very high level.

For more information on asthma please click on