Amy Van Dyken, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Peter Vanderkaay all have something in common, and it’s not just their glistening Olympic gold medals. While they will forever be remembered on the world stage for their athletic feats and dedication, there’s one thing that nearly held them all back from greatness, and that's asthma. These athletes (and hundreds of others) are a testament to how asthma can affect an athlete, but not bring them down.
Asthma vs. Exercise-Induced Asthma (EIA)
According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), asthma is classified as a chronic disease affecting up to 10% of the population. If you have asthma, you know the symptoms all-too well: swollen airways, wheezing, and trouble breathing.
Exercise Induced Asthma (EIA), while similar to regular asthma, affects those with and without asthma. In fact, EIA affects up to 20% of people who don’t have asthma, and 80% of people who do (KidsHealth). When it comes to elite-level sports, the numbers are even higher.
What does asthma look like?
The most common trait of asthma is wheezing, but other symptoms include chronic cough, trouble sleeping due to coughing, and shortness of breath. These symptoms usually worsen when a person gets sick or is exposed to pet dander, mold, pollution, or cold air (AAAAI).
As for exercise-induced asthma, its symptoms - such as getting winded or coughing - usually begin 5-10 minutes into a physical activity, and don’t let up until an hour, or several hours after (KidsHealth). So, if an athlete is trying to figure out if they’re just out of shape or if they’re suffering from EIA, recovery time is a quick way to determine the difference.
Managing asthma on the field
The first step is for an athlete to see a doctor (better yet, an allergist / immunologist) if they think they might have asthma or EIA. If the athlete is diagnosed with either condition, that doesn't mean they have to count out Olympic and pro-athlete dreams just yet.
Symptoms can be controlled with medications, and these vary by individual need. The important step is to be prepared, which can happen in several ways - taking medication before exercise, warming up and cooling down properly to condition airways, and building up resistance to summer heat (before the rest of the team starts practicing) are just a few (Allergy & Asthma Network).
Making sure athletic trainers, coaches, and health staff are prepared is another vital step to an asthmatic student athlete's success. The National Athletic Trainers' Association put together a position statement that includes the importance of preparing an asthma action plan (one of the 7 essential components of a student health file), making inhalers accessible during practices and games, and providing alternative practices if an athlete's symptoms flare up. All staff should also monitor symptoms, such as needing to use an inhaler more than two times during any practice or event (Allergy & Asthma Network).
Succeeding with asthma
With all of the appropriate measures in place to manage asthma, athletes and staff can be prepared for a winning season. But does this mean asthmatic student athletes have to resign themselves to the bench while everyone else trains? Considering nearly 1 in every 6 Olympians has asthma, the answer is a resounding "no" (KidsHealth). Hard work and a little blood, sweat, and tears go into each collegiate, pro-athlete, or Olympic dream. Athletes and coaches don't have to be afraid of asthma, nor should they be.
In my own experience, I've coached several high school-aged swimmers with asthma, and each athlete continues to amaze me with their ability to overcome their health condition. An athlete isn't ruled by what they may struggle with, but rather how they choose to overcome that obstacle. With the right preparation, communication, and support team, any athlete - no matter their circumstances - can achieve greatness.
For more on managing youth asthma, view our complimentary resource for schools.