When exercise leads to wheezing or coughing, people often blame the symptoms on being out of shape. But a new study shows that, in children at least, there may be more to the story. In fact, these symptoms were often accompanied by a decrease in lung function—a hallmark of asthma—even when children had no prior history of asthma or allergies.
It's possible that children who experience problems following intense exercise may have undiagnosed, intermittent, exercised-induced asthma, says Clifford Bassett, chair of the public education committee at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, who was not involved in the new study but has reviewed the findings. The research, presented Tuesday at the American Thoracic Society's International Conference in New Orleans, found that short periods of heavy exercise caused decreased lung function in some children with no history of asthma or allergies. Nearly half of the 56 healthy children studied had at least one abnormal pulmonary function result following exercise. More research is needed to determine why this occurs and how it can be prevented, the authors wrote.
Complications of exercise-induced asthma include permanent narrowing of the child's airways, emergency room visits and hospitalizations, and poor athletic performance, according to the Mayo Clinic. But Bassett says that it's likely that many children with exercise-induced asthma go undiagnosed. Some parents may not realize their children are having difficulty breathing after physical activity because kids tend to hide how they feel due to peer pressure or embarrassment, he says. And the symptoms may not happen during every round of physical activity. High pollen counts or poor air quality days may make symptoms more likely in susceptible children.
Still, there are signs parents should be on the lookout for, especially if there is a family history of asthma or allergies. If any of the following symptoms occur, a doctor can perform tests that will safely evaluate whether or not your child has asthma. Bassett advises staying alert for these problems:
- Shortness of breath that worsens during physical activity.
- Cough that may or may not produce phlegm.
- Chest tightness.
- Reduced athletic performance, meaning the child is physically able to do less than he or she could accomplish in the past.
- Excessive fatigue associated with athletic performance or exercise.
- Wheezing that worsens during exercise and may begin suddenly.
- Prolonged recovery time following exercise, lasting noticeably longer than in the past.
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