Mechanisms and management of exercise-induced asthma in elite athletes

J Asthma. 2012 Jun;49(5):480-6. doi: 10.3109/02770903.2012.676123. Epub 2012 Apr 20.


Objective and methods: Asthma is often reported by elite athletes, especially endurance athletes. The aim of this article is to review current knowledge of mechanisms and management of exercise-induced asthma (EIA) in adult elite athletes.

Results: The mechanisms underlying EIA is incompletely understood, but the two prevailing hypotheses are the hyper-osmolarity and the thermal hypothesis. Both hypotheses consider inflammation and activation of mast cells as being crucial for the development of EIA, although the assumed mechanisms triggering the inflammatory response differ. Objective testing is of utmost importance in the diagnosis of EIA in elite athletes. Management of EIA can be divided into pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic treatment. The basic principles for the treatment of EIA in elite athletes should be as for any asthmatic individual, including use of inhaled corticosteroids (ICS), β(2)-agonists, and leukotriene antagonists. However, evidence suggests that daily use of β(2)-agonists might lead to the development of tolerance. ICS therapy is, due to its anti-inflammatory effects, the recommended primary therapy for EIA also in elite athletes. All doctors treating individuals with asthma, especially elite athletes, should remain updated on doping aspects of asthma therapy. Non-pharmacologic management of EIA in elite athletes includes physical warm-up, which takes advantage of the refractory period following an attack of EIA, whereas high intake of antioxidants may reduce airway inflammation. Wearing heat masks, specially designed for outdoor winter athletes, might protect against bronchoconstriction triggered by inhalation of cold and dry air.

Conclusion: EIA in elite athletes should be managed as in any individual with asthma, but the risk of developing tolerance to bronchodilators as well as doping aspects should always be taken into account.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Asthmatic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Asthma, Exercise-Induced / drug therapy*
  • Asthma, Exercise-Induced / etiology*
  • Athletes*
  • Humans


  • Anti-Asthmatic Agents