Asthmatic Olympians Are Winners

Asthma in elite athletes is more common than in the general public

April 28, 2012 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

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(dailyRx News) A surprising number of elite athletes have asthma. As the Olympics are set to start in London, many are studying this phenomenon and the lessons to be learned from these athletes.

Elite athletes need to be in peak physical condition to succeed at Olympic levels of competition.

Despite this image, may Olympic athletes suffer from asthma, with percentages higher than the general population.

While researchers may not know the reason why this is the case, there are plenty of lessons non-athletes can learn from these elite athletes who are dealing with asthma.

"Ask your doctor to develop an asthma action plan."

Ahead of the Olympic games in London, a new feature by Sophie Arie, examined the unique status of asthma in Olympic athletes. From previous studies, the percentage of elite athletes with asthma could be more than double the percentage of asthma in the general population.

This could be due to athletes having asthma, exercise-induced asthma, or some combination of both. Most importantly, how athletes manage asthma can be useful for other asthma sufferers.

In a study conducted by John M. Weller, MD, from the University of Iowa, during the 1996 Olympics, approximately 20 percent of American Olympians had asthma.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), for the general public, one out of 15 Americans have asthma, which is around six to seven percent.

This increased prevalence holds true for British Olympians. In a study led by Mr. J.W. Dickinson, from the English Institute of Sport, approximately 21 percent of British athletes who participated in the 2004 had asthma. Asthma affects close to eight percent of the general population. This increased percentage of asthma in athletes may be inflated due to exercise-induced asthma, which would only affect individuals while training and exerting themselves during competition.

The increased rate of asthma may be due to several factors. Considering that elite athletes train vigorously, this over-exertion could lead to more cases of asthma. Athletes may be training year round and in cold weather, which could exacerbate asthma symptoms. Additionally, chemicals in swimming pools could increase asthma rates among aquatic athletes.

Surprisingly, asthmatic Olympians have outperformed their healthy counterparts since the 2000 Olympics. According to previous studies, for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 19.1 percent of swimmers had asthma and were approved to use asthma medication. These swimmers managed to win 32.9 percent of individual medals.

Despite asthma, these Olympians have been successful due to the careful management of asthma. Athletes are highly aware of what asthma can do to their training and become educated about the disease, which includes proper medication usage, having an asthma action plan and monitoring their symptoms.

Most importantly, asthma sufferers can learn the value of exercise when it comes to reducing asthma symptoms. No, researchers are not asking you to train at Olympic levels, rather to incorporate general exercise as part of your asthma action plan. Exercise will increase lung function and improve quality of life.  

No author conflicts were reported.

This feature was published in the April edition of BMJ.