Reducing Risk in Sports: Managing asthma or other breathing problems

Reducing Risk in Sports: Managing asthma or other breathing problems


Reducing Risk in Sports: Managing asthma or other breathing problems


USA TODAY High School Sports and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association have partnered on a monthly column to address injuries, prevention and related issues to help schools, coaches and student-athletes. Here is the latest column from Scott Sailor, the president of NATA.

Scott Sailor, president of National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA).

Many athletes of all ages encounter breathing difficulties during workouts, practice or sporting events. If you have asthma, there is no reason you cannot continue with your athletic career, just like the numerous well-known athletes who control their illness and continue to compete with great success.

Here are some important tips regarding asthma:

  • Major signs and symptoms of asthma include coughing, wheezing, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath and breathing difficulty at night, when waking up in the morning or when exposed to certain allergens or irritants such as perfumes or other strong odors.
  • If you have asthma, your athletic trainer may work with your coach to provide alternative practice sites. Indoor facilities that offer good ventilation and air conditioning should be considered for at least part of the practice.
  • If your asthma is under control, exercise will strengthen muscles, improve respiratory health and enhance endurance and overall well-being.
  • A structured and gradual warm-up protocol may decrease the risk of complications of asthma. Your athletic trainer can help you develop a plan.
  • Your athletic trainer will help make sure you are properly educated about your condition, including the importance of taking medications, proper use of inhaler equipment and how to recognize “good or bad” breathing days.
  • If you have been prescribed fast-acting medication for your breathing condition, it’s important that it be near you at all times, especially during exercise.

RELATED: Read more past columns from Scott Sailor

While asthma is often the cause of breathing difficulties, there are some lesser-known conditions that are more difficult to diagnose. One such ailment, vocal cord dysfunction-exercise induced laryngeal obstruction (VCD-EILO), is triggered by exercise. It has some similar symptoms to asthma; however, it is managed differently. If you have never been diagnosed with a breathing disorder and are having breathing difficulties, be sure to talk to your athletic trainer and see your physician who will determine the proper diagnosis and management.

Asthma and VCD-EILO both include shortness of breath, but the sound of the breath is different. VCD-EILO has a high-pitched, grating sound and asthma has a wheeze. There are other differences as well. Those with VCD-EILO struggle while inhaling, and those with asthma struggle while exhaling. Athletes with VCD-EILO will experience tightness in their throat, not in their chest like those with asthma. Also, VCD-EILO has a rapid onset and rapid recovery while the onset and recovery of asthma is gradual.

If you have VCD-EILO, you may likely be referred to a speech language pathologist. If you have asthma, you may be treated by your primary care physician or specialist such as an allergist or immunologist. It’s important that you have follow-up exams with your physician at least every six to 12 months. Once you have a diagnosis, your athletic trainer will play an important role in supervising your treatment to help prevent and control symptoms.

To help understand the differences between asthma and VCD-EILO, NATA has created an infographic handout. Visit for additional sports safety tips for athletes and parents.


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