Asthma and Olympic Athletes

Doctors say asthma common among Olympians

They are, of course, the picture of health. But believe it or not, Olympic athletes are more prone to suffer from asthma than the general population.

More than 20 percent of the U.S. Olympic team competing in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games reportedly had asthma.

Doctors aren’t quite sure why so many athletes have asthma.

“It could be that since athletes recognize how critical good lung health is, they may just seek and get a better diagnosis,” said Dr. Jackie Eghrari-Sabet, of Family Allergy & Asthma Care in Gaithersburg, Md.

There will be 32 sports represented at the London Games.  Are athletes competing in certain sports more prone to suffer from asthma than those in other sports?

“Interestingly, mountain bikers are the No. 1 Olympic athletes who tend to have asthma,” said Dr. Jackie. “When they’re working their lungs, they’re working on an incline, which is tougher.”

Dr. Jackie also said the Winter Games tend to pose the greatest health challenge to asthmatics because of the cold, dry air.

Track and field events are some of the most popular events in the Summer Games.  Doctors say asthmatics competing in those events are at risk of suffering exercise-induced bronchospasms.

“It’s due to the dehydration of the airways,” according to Dr. Jackie.  “They’ll wheeze and cough when they exercise.”

What about swimmers?

“We often tell children with asthma who want to play sports to go to the pool because of the warm, humidified air,” said Dr. Jackie. “The question for us is whether the humidity causes us to see more of these children back in the office or whether it’s the chlorine that causes the burning of the lungs.”

Marathon runners and cyclists don’t have to contend with humidity at the pool, but they do have to deal with pollution and pollen.  London is a city where pollution can pose a problem.

“The hope with these games is that if the temperatures are lower and there’s a lot of rain, the runners and cyclists with asthma may do better,” according to Dr. Jackie.

Treating Olympic athletes who need asthma medications can be tricky because of drug restrictions. First of all, athletes have to put in applications to use their meds.

“During the 2008 Beijing games, there were more than 1,000 applications approved for asthmatics,” Dr. Jackie said. “There are two types of meds for them. One is an inhaled steroid that doesn’t bulk up the muscle but still needs approval. The other is a beta-agonist, which opens the lungs but also speeds up the heart rate. You have to be properly worked up if you know you need those meds.”

The lesson we can all learn from Olympic athletes is that even if you are managing an illness or disease, the sky can be the limit, as long as you’re disciplined and do what you’re supposed to do.  Don’t use asthma as an excuse to be a couch potato.

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