This year's Winter Olympics recently closed to much fanfare, and perhaps your favorite athlete even brought home a medal from Sochi.
The Olympics is one of the world's most important and historic sports events that draws the attention of billions of people worldwide. Training for the Olympics demands years of hard work, and qualification and participation is only granted to a select and fortunate few. While athletes are generally in great physical shape, there are many possible side effects that can result from such rigorous training. In fact, certain Olympic sports and activities are also more likely to induce asthma for its players.
Swimmers and hockey players suffer from asthma at a higher rate than elite athletes of other sports. For swimmers, this is due to the chlorine used in swimming pools. If you are a swimmer and spending multiple hours a day in a pool is part of your daily routine, you are likely being exposed to high levels of chlorine. And while this close proximity to chlorine is not healthy for anyone in the vicinity, like coaches or maintenance people, elite swimmers have a higher asthma risk because they take deep breaths right at the surface of the water, inhaling gaseous chlorine by-products. Furthermore, swimmers are exerting a lot of energy and ultimately hyperventilating which increases their chemical exposure.
On the ice rink, hockey players potentially breathe in asthma-inducing chemicals, which are released from ice resurfacing machines, popularly known as the Zamboni. As the Zamboni smooth's the ice, it simultaneously releases chemicals and pollutants in it's exhaust. The exhaust from the Zamboni can generate unacceptably high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air along with other air pollutant which may play a role in the respiratory health of hockey players. Exposure to NO2 can lead to bronchitis, chronic cough and exacerbation of asthma.
Asthma is more common with winter sports than summer sports. Besides the chemicals and pollutants in ice rinks, which can induce asthma in hockey players and ice skaters alike, the cold winter environment may also contribute to the higher prevalence of asthma in winter sport athletes. For example, athletes such as cross-country skiers may be sensitive to the low temperatures and dry air. Normally, air passes through the nose and is warmed and humidified in the process but during vigorous physical activity, people are more likely to breath through their mouths. For athletes that continuously engage in physical activity while exposed to a cold environment; cold, dry air is more likely to pass through to the lower airways and lungs, which can trigger asthma symptoms.
Sports-related asthma symptoms include wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing and chest tightness. Although we tend to attribute asthma symptoms of athletes as exercise-induced bronchospasm (as opposed to strict asthma), these symptoms may actually constitute a reversible subset of asthma. In these cases, symptoms will often lessen with less intense and shorter duration of exercise. Unfortunately for professional competitive athletes, lessening their training may not be a realistic option.
However, some preventative measure may be taken to help you guard against winter sports related asthma symptoms. These include:
• Breathing through your nose.
• Wearing a face mask, which recirculates the moisture you exhale into the air you draw in.
• Warming up gradually before exercising.
• Exercise indoors whenever possible.
• Discuss with your physician about using an inhaler to prevent and treat your symptoms.
• Getting evaluated by asthma and allergy specialist if you begin displaying these symptoms.
Swimming, hockey and other winter outdoor sports are great fun even when you're not an Olympic athlete! However, engaging in these activities often can make you more prone to developing asthma symptoms. Getting a full health history, performing a spirometry (breathing test) and/or an exercise challenge may help your doctor provide the correct diagnosis to help you to enjoy these fun sports, worry-free.