Highly trained athletes are repeatedly and strongly exposed to cold air during winter training and to many inhalant irritants and allergens all year round. Asthma occurs most commonly in athletes engaging in endurance events such as cross-country skiing, swimming, or long-distance running. As well as the type of training, a major risk factor is atopic disposition. A mixed type of eosinophilic and neutrophilic airway inflammation has been shown to affect elite swimmers, ice-hockey players, and cross-country skiers. The inflammation may represent a form of repeated thermal, mechanical, or osmotic airway trauma resulting in a healing or remodelling process. Elite athletes commonly use antiasthma drugs to treat exercise-induced bronchial symptoms. Only a few controlled studies have been conducted on the effects of antiasthma drugs on asthma symptoms, bronchial hyperresponsiveness and airway inflammation in elite athletes. Inhaled beta(2)-adrenoceptor agonists are effective against exercise-induced bronchospasm. In contrast, airway inflammation, bronchial hyperresponsiveness and symptoms have responded poorly to inhaled corticosteroids and leukotriene antagonists. As discontinuing high-level exercise has proved effective in reducing eosinophilic airway inflammation, exercise or training should be restricted in athletes having troublesome symptoms and sputum eosinophilia. Switching training to less irritating environments should be considered whenever possible. It appears to be difficult to change the 'natural course' of asthma in athletes by anti-inflammatory treatment.