Imagine jogging around the block and, a few minutes afterward, being struck with a host of scary symptoms--wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath. The next thing you know, you're feeling chest tightness, pain, and extreme fatigue. These are just some of the signs of exercise-induced asthma (EIA), a chronic condition that affects millions of Americans.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 23 million U.S. adults suffer from asthma, and most of them have symptoms during or right after sustained aerobic exercise. In addition, many non-asthmatics experience asthmatic symptoms resulting from physical activity, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunity (AAAAI) reports.

What Causes Exercise-Induced Asthma?

Although EIA symptoms are well-known, the underlying causes of the condition--and those of asthma in general--remain a mystery. In some cases, people seem to have been born with the condition; in others, it appears to develop during childhood, adolescence, or adulthood. In all cases, asthmatics have chronic airway inflammation and excessive airway sensitivity.

It is clear, however, that genetics play a role, so if a family member has EIA, you're more likely to have it too, reports the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. In addition, a growing body of research suggests that early exposure to certain allergens, infections, and environmental toxins, such as tobacco smoke, can increase your risk of developing the disease.

Exercise-Induced Asthma Symptoms

Symptoms of exercise-induced asthma generally occur after two to 10 minutes of aerobic activity--the type of exercise in which normal nasal breathing must be supplemented by mouth-breathing. Because the air being inhaled hasn't been warmed or humidified by the nasal passages, it prompts increased blood flow to the bronchial linings and results in the swelling and constriction of the vessels.

Eventually, the airflow is obstructed, which may lead to several or all of the following symptoms:

  • Wheezing;
  • Coughing;
  • Shortness of breath;
  • Chest tightness;
  • Chest pain;
  • Elevated respiratory rate; and
  • Extreme fatigue.

Finding EIA Treatment--and Breathing Easy

The first step in seeking treatment for exercise-induced asthma is getting a proper diagnosis. Your doctor will most likely conduct a complete physical exam and ask questions about your symptoms, their severity, your lifestyle, and your medical history. In some cases, he or she may administer tests, such as a spirometry, an oximetry, a chest x-ray, or a peak flow meter test, the AAAAI reports.

If it is determined that you do have EIA, your doctor can advise you on the best treatment options. In general, the goals of treatment are to prevent attacks, reduce the severity of symptoms, and maintain as normal a lifestyle as possible. Your doctor may suggest a combination of self-care techniques and medications, but regardless which methods you pursue, treatment will most likely be long term, since asthma is a chronic condition.

Although doctors generally recommend that people with EIA continue to exercise, certain types of physical activity may be preferable to others. Endurance activities and those that require exercising outdoors in cold weather may prove especially difficult, but that doesn't mean people with EIA can't excel at sports. In fact, several Olympic gold medalists, including Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Greg Louganis, suffered from exercise-induced asthma and managed to conquer the challenges.