Why Do 8% of Olympic Athletes Have Asthma?

A recent study revealed that asthma is the most chronic condition among Olympic athletes, with around 8% of the athletes suffering from the condition – and outperforming non-asthma sufferers.

A recent study conducted by the University of Western Australia revealed that asthma is the most chronic condition among Olympic athletes, with around 8% of the athletes suffering from the condition. The research was based on data from the last five Olympic Games, and is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The research identified athletes with documented asthma and AHR who used inhaled beta-2 agonists (IBA), which is a drug commonly used by Olympic athletes as a treatment for asthma. However, due to the increase in the number of Olympic athletes using IBA between 1996 and 2000, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) mandated that athletes must provide proof of their condition to justify the need for the drug.1

The study suggested that athletes could be suffering from asthma due to their intense training regimens. In the summer and winter sports, many endurance athletes suffer from asthma and airway hyper-responsiveness (AHR). The cause of asthma in many older athletes is thought to be a result of the years of intense training.2

According to results of the study, if there are more winter athletes with asthma compared to summer athletes, it is mostly because there are fewer individual medals in summer endurance sports compared to the winter sports. Additionally, during the winter games inhalation of cold air contributes to airway damage. The skating rinks also cause airway damage, since particles are in suspension in the air from the ice resurfacing machines. “Inhaling polluted or cold air is considered an important factor which might explain the cause in some sports, but not in all,” explained Kenneth D. Fitch, researcher at the University of Western Australia and sole author of the study.3

Contrary to common sense, asthma competitors continually outperform their opponents who do not suffer from asthma. Fitch wonders whether training harder than the other competitors in order to improve results is the reason why many athletes develop asthma and AHR during adulthood. There is even speculation as to whether physiological changes associated with asthma represent a stimulus to train, that may not be experienced by those who do not suffer from the condition.4

If left untreated, asthma can have detrimental effects in athletes. When performing at the world-level, Olympic athletes have little to no room for error. With nearly 1 in 10 Olympic athletes developing asthma, fortunately there are remedies such as IBA to help mitigate the effects.5

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