Exercise-induced bronchospasm in the elite athlete

Sports Med. 2002;32(9):583-600. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200232090-00004.


The term exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB) describes the acute transient airway narrowing that occurs during and most often after exercise in 10 to 50% of elite athletes, depending upon the sport examined. Although multiple factors are unquestionably involved in the EIB response, airway drying caused by a high exercise-ventilation rate is primary in most cases. The severity of this reaction reflects the allergic predisposition of the athlete, the water content of the inspired air, the type and concentration of air pollutants inspired, and the intensity (or ventilation rate) of the exercise. The highest prevalence of EIB is seen in winter-sport populations, where athletes are chronically exposed to cold dry air and/or environmental pollutants found in indoor ice arenas. When airway surface liquid lost during the natural warming and humidification process of respiration is not replenished at a rate equal to the loss, the ensuing osmolarity change stimulates the release of inflammatory mediators and results in bronchospasm; this cascade of events is exacerbated by airway inflammation and airway remodelling. The acute EIB response is characterised by airway smooth muscle contraction, membrane swelling, and/or mucus plug formation. Evidence suggests that histamine, leukotrienes and prostanoids are likely mediators for this response. Although the presence of symptoms and a basic physical examination are marginally effective, objective measures of lung function should be used for accurate and reliable diagnosis of EIB. Diagnosis should include baseline spirometry, followed by an appropriate bronchial provocation test. To date, the best test to confirm EIB may simply be standard pulmonary function testing before and after high-intensity dry air exercise. A 10% post-challenge fall in forced expiratory volume in 1 second is used as diagnostic criteria. The goal of medical intervention is to limit EIB exacerbation and allow the athlete to train and compete symptom free. This is attempted through daily controller medications such as inhaled corticosteroids or by the prophylactic use of medications before exercise. In many cases, EIB is difficult to control. These and other data suggest that EIB in the elite athlete is in contrast with classic asthma.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Asthma, Exercise-Induced / diagnosis
  • Asthma, Exercise-Induced / physiopathology
  • Asthma, Exercise-Induced / prevention & control
  • Bronchial Spasm / diagnosis
  • Bronchial Spasm / etiology*
  • Bronchial Spasm / physiopathology
  • Bronchial Spasm / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Prevalence
  • Respiratory Function Tests
  • Risk Factors
  • Seasons