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The Asthma Section

Kids with Asthma Can Play Sports

A key to helping a young asthma sufferer feel comfortable exercising is for the child and his or her family to become educated about asthma and how it can be managed. As Kelly Saulnier and Jenna learned about the disease, her mother realized that “the more she did participate in activities, and push her limits a bit, the better it was for her and for her lungs.”

Last summer, Jenna attended Camp Treasure Chest, a week-long camp run by The Lung Association of Nova Scotia. The camp’s trained counselors and medical staff teach the kids how to manage their asthma. Jenna also participated in the association’s Learn to Run program, and worked her way up to running 1.5 kilometres.

The course “really inspired her” says her mom, and she is now part of a running club at school, where she and her peers were training for a 4.5-km youth run in May that was part of the Blue Nose International Marathon in Halifax. “Education goes a long way,” notes Saulnier.

Jordan Stewart and his mom now also have a much better handle on his condition. About two years ago, he began seeing a respirologist who fine-tuned his medication to reduce the mucus build up in his airways. Now, Jordan excels at swimming and recently completed his bronze cross, which required being in the pool for 2 1⁄2 hours every Sunday.

He is eagerly awaiting his 16th birthday, so he can start his lifeguard certification. (“I can make money,” he notes.) In the meantime, he and his friends are often at the pool during public swim, and his mom is hoping he’ll join a competitive team.

It’s important to remember that there are some additional medical considerations for a child with asthma who’s involved in sports. “It’s not our belief that [kids with asthma] should be limited in any way,” says respirologist Lyttle. But this usually means they do need medication on a regular basis.

“It’s just finding the medication that works best for that child,” he says. Daily corticosteroids will reduce inflammation in the airways, making them less likely to react when the child is exposed to an asthma trigger, such as pollen, pollution, cold air, or even exercise itself.  “If we aggressively manage the asthma, you should be able to manage a single exposure to pollen. It shouldn’t actually make you that sick,” explains Kaplan.

Asthmatics can further reduce the likelihood of having symptoms during physical activity by taking one of the approved medications for use before exercise, such as short-acting beta agonists, sodium cromoglycate or montelukast (Singulair).

“Get your asthma under control,” says Kaplan. “If you still need something for the exercise, then use a medication before the exercise that allows you to do it efficiently,” says Kaplan. A light warm up before exercising or going into a cold rink could also help.

If the asthma is triggered by pollen, avoiding exercise during peak pollen times further reduces the risk of an attack. For example, “in the spring and the early summer, you want to exercise in places which are not heavily forested, or the grass is not freshly cut,” says sports medicine expert Clarfield.

However, experts agree that asthmatics should take a break from rigorous outdoor sports during the poor air quality days of summer. “If the air quality is bad, I don’t know that anyone needs to run around out in that,” says Lyttle.

And while it may be hard for those who are real competitors, it’s important for asthmatics to remember that if they’re having asthma symptoms, they should use their rescue inhaler and slow down, says Kaplan. “If the symptoms abate, then carry on. If not, then a break is certainly in order, as well as a visit to your physician or asthma educator.”

There will be challenges when participating in sports with asthma. “The biggest problem for me,” recalls Favaro, “was my ability to be able to compete in different pools. The ventilation was often not the greatest, and the condition of the air was often a big determinant of how I would do at the practice or at the swim meet.”

Still, he says he never wanted to let his asthma keep him from achieving his goals. “If asthma was the reason that I had to sit out for half a practice, I would just say, ‘OK, that’s my physical limitation at the moment. But I’m not going to let that hold me back from trying again.’ Lots of things can hold you back. You can injure yourself or you can be unable to complete a set. But I never wanted to say, ‘my asthma is not letting me do this’. If for some reason I can’t complete what I’m trying to do, I try and do it again next time.”

As proof that asthma is not a deterrent to athletic success, there is a long list of Olympians with asthma. Although it may take some work to understand a child’s asthma triggers and to fine-tune medications, whether the child aims to become an Olympian or simply wants to do something as fundamental to being human as exercise, asthma is not an excuse.

For a profile on each asthma all-star, see the Summer 2008 issue of Allergic Living magazine.
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