Can Kids With Asthma Play Sports?

Thornton Heath C

Dr. Heath Thornton
Assistant Professor,
Family and Community Medicine
Wake Forest Baptist Health
presented by Wake Forest Baptist Health.

Should children diagnosed with asthma avoid sports and exercise?

Definitely not.  Being active and playing sports is a good idea for all children, particularly those with asthma. Roughly 7 million children in the U.S. under the age of 18 have been diagnosed with asthma, and exercise has been shown to help strengthen their lungs, increase lung capacity and speed recovery after an asthma attack.

What do I need to do if my child with asthma wants to play sports?

Asthma varies from child to child and from season to season, so it's important to have your doctor explain the best way to keep your child's asthma under control.

Make sure you and your child understand what asthma triggers affect your child most. Each child has specific conditions such as exposure to pollen, pet dander, cold air, vigorous exercise and respiratory infections that can result in an asthma attack. Some triggers such as pet dander can be avoided, but others, such as vigorous exercise, are important for good health and need to be controlled rather than avoided.

Today's medications are so effective that almost all children can safely play vigorous sports if they take their medications as prescribed by their doctor. With proper control, people with asthma can excel at sports. In fact, more than 15 percent of Olympic athletes have asthma, a rate nearly twice the general population.

How do I make sure my child's coaches and teachers understand how to help him/her manage their asthma at school?

Communicating with school personnel is key. With the help of your health care provider, develop a written asthma management plan that includes a brief history of your child's asthma, his or her symptoms and triggers, a list of prescribed asthma medications, and what to do and whom to contact if your child begins to exhibit symptoms.

Make an appointment to answer any questions school personnel have about this management plan. It's essential that your child's medications are accessible. Having to leave the field to run to a locker or a nurse's office can be very uncomfortable and embarrassing for a child who may be sensitive to peer and coach pressure to work through physical challenges.  Medication needs to be immediately available.

How do I tell if my child's asthma is not well controlled?

A regular cough, particularly at night, might be a signal that asthma control could be improved. Also if a child who usually enjoys sports is reluctant to participate in exercise or is not able to perform at his or her usual levels at home or school, it might be a signal that more care needs to be taken to follow the care management plan. If the behavior continues, the child may need evaluation by his or her physician.

Explain the role of different asthma medications?

Most children require two types of medication to control their asthma. Both are usually metered-dose inhalers. One is taken daily to prevent symptoms. If possible, have your child take this daily medication before or after school. The other medication is a rescue inhaler designed to relieve symptoms when a child begins having breathing issues. Students must be able to have this emergency medication available at all times.

Children with asthma under good control should be able to participate in any sport that they desire, but some sports may be more likely to trigger asthma symptoms than others. For some, swimming in a chlorinated indoor pool can be irritating. Long-distance running, which requires a lot of exertion as well as exposure to cold, dry air or pollens and mold, can trigger attacks. Children with exercise-induced asthma may need to use their rescue inhaler 10 to15 minutes before these kinds of sports to prevent symptoms. It also might be a good idea for children with allergies and asthma to have a back-to-school healthcare visit to review their management plans before returning to school.

What symptoms require action?

Make sure you, your child as well as teachers, athletic coaches and trainers recognize asthma symptoms and know what steps to take to avoid a major attack.

The following symptoms indicate the need for action:

  • Difficulty breathing that fails to subside quickly after aerobic exercise ceases
  • Trouble talking without pausing to breathe
  • Sustained coughing or coughing after exercise
  • Wheezing
  • Complaints of tightness in the chest
  • Inability to keep up with activity at usual level
  • Student's lips or fingernails take on a bluish tinge

What steps should be taken if any of these symptoms occur?

  • Stop the child's exercise
  • Follow the asthma management plan
  • If necessary, help the child take their medication
  • Monitor whether the medication relieves the symptoms
  • If the child's symptoms do not improve, get emergency help

For more information or to make an appointment, call 336-716-WAKE (toll-free 888-716-WAKE) or visit WakeHealth.edu/sports-medicine.

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Last Updated: 02-14-2014
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