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Gasping for air: When exercise brings on asthma

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

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The suicide drills for the Academy of the Holy Angels freshman basketball team were hard, but, for Dana Baboulis-Gyscek, they were nearly lethal.

Every time she and the others trying out for the team ran a series of sprints up and down the court, she would finish last, red- faced and gasping for air. Sometimes during practices, she would get so winded she wanted to throw up.

"It went through my head that I couldn't compete," recalled the 16-year-old Washington Township resident, who has played golf, tennis, and basketball for as long as she can remember.

It wasn't until after she went through a series of tough tennis drills during her sophomore year at the Demarest school that the multi-sport athlete sought medical advice for her inability to keep up.

That's when she was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma.

Experts estimate that 36 million people who don't experience asthma from the usual triggers, such as pollen or pets, have exercise-induced asthma and don't know it. In addition, nearly 90 percent of the 18 million asthmatics in America are prone to EIA.

Symptoms include coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness about five to 10 minutes into an activity.

Sports that are more likely to induce EIA are those that require constant movement: basketball, cross-country skiing, and track. Sports with stop-and-go action, such as football, tennis, walking, and swimming, are less likely to induce EIA.

Doctors don't know why exercise triggers attacks, but they suspect changes in temperature and humidity play a role. Symptoms tend to be most common in cold, dry months.

With proper treatment, sufferers can go on to be successful in their sport. In fact, one in six Olympians participating in the Athens games has EIA, according to statistics released by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

As more is known about asthma, treatment for EIA has changed dramatically. Traditionally, doctors would prescribe a short-acting inhaler that relaxes muscles before a workout. Now, medical guidelines say that anyone having attacks at least twice a week should be on long-term preventative treatments, such as Singulair, a pill which can be taken orally every day to reduce pulmonary inflammation.

The new medications and high number of Olympians with EIA have raised eyebrows globally. Because some treatments are stimulants, the International Olympic Committee suspects medications are used to enhance performance, not treat a condition.

These Olympics are the first in which athletes are required to document their condition.

"There are so many Americans and British that have asthma, and a large percentage of them have medals" said Don Kessler, a Rutgers University athletic trainer and the trainer for the Olympic rowing team. "It made the other countries wonder."

The condition isn't exclusive to hard-core athletes.

When Sandra Fusco-Walker, took up power walking 10 years ago, she found herself gasping for air.

"It was very frightening," said the 51-year-old Kinnelon resident. "It felt like I was trying to breathe while somebody was holding a pillow over my head."

Three kids and more than 30 years after being an avid high school basketball and baseball player, she had EIA.

Though EIA tends to be more common in children, Dr. Arthur Torre, chairman of the Pediatric/Adult Asthma Coalition of New Jersey and Fusco-Walker's physician, says that he sees plenty of adults who have symptoms later in life.

"When people experience problems, they just stop exercising," he said. "But that's like taking an aspirin for a toothache when what you need is a filling."

Physicians say EIA patients can prevent attacks by developing an asthma action plan. Recommendations include regularly using a peak flow meter - a handheld device that asthmatics blow into to monitor breathing difficulties - and exercising indoors on cold and dry or high pollen days and wearing a medical alert bracelet.

Fusco-Walker, who became an advocate for Allergy & Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics after her three children were diagnosed with asthma, tries her best to set an example for her family by following her plan. She keeps her peak flow meter near her toothbrush and uses it a few times a week or whenever she's feeling shortness of breath so she and her doctor can adjust her medications.

"I don't like attacks," she said, adding that she now walks three miles a day. "I avoid them as much as possible. This just takes a few minutes. ... I can see if I'm starting to have problems before having any symptoms."

Physicians strongly urge parents to keep an eye on children, who aren't as likely to notice that their pains may be a sign of asthma.

"A lot of kids try so hard, they don't want to take a break," said Dr. Charles Feldman, a pediatric asthma specialist in Teaneck. "The kids think they just don't have the stamina to keep up with the others and that they don't want to be any different than anyone else."

That's true for 17-year-old Kaona McGowan. The co-captain of Franklin High School's basketball team was diagnosed with EIA four years ago and hopes to play college ball. Though she hasn't had an asthma attack since being on a daily medical regimen, she worries that her condition will hurt her chances to play in college.

"Some coaches don't know too much about this," she said. "I'm worried that if I'm on the team and there's a game situation they'll have to take me out and it's not because I don't have the heart or I don't want to play but because they'll think I just can't keep up."

Baboulis-Gyscek, the Washington Township athlete, understands.

"A lot of my coaches thought I wasn't giving it my all," she said. "During the drills, they'd tell me to try my hardest but I was. It wasn't like I was being lazy. It was frustrating."

After her diagnosis, she is much more confident about her skills - and she realizes her limits.

"I was kind of relieved when the doctor told me what I had," she said. "I knew it wasn't that I just couldn't do it - it was that I had a problem doing it."

She's been going through her treatment for a little less than year. But it showed during another season of basketball suicide drills.

"I didn't come in last this time," she said triumphantly.

* * *

Talk to your doctor

Ask your physician about exercise-induced asthma if:

1. Troubled breathing is accompanied by wheezing, coughing, sputum, or tightness of the chest.

2. You have more difficulty exercising when your allergies are acting up.

3. It is harder than normal to exercise when temperatures and humidity are low.

Reducing attacks

Doctors say EIA patients can reduce attacks by:

1. Exercising indoors when the temperatures and humidity are low.

2. When temperatures and humidity drop, exercising with a porous face mask or scarf over your mouth to keep air moist.

3. Avoiding outdoor exercise when allergens are high.

4. Extending warm-ups and cool-downs to 15 to 20 minutes.

(C) 2004 The Record, Bergen County, NJ. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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