Asthma medicine: performance enhancers, they're not

Credit: Al Bello/Allsport
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Unsubstantiated rumors that asthmatics have an edge over regular swimmers because theyre allowed to take inhalable steroids have floated around the swimming community for quite some time. That kind of suggestion is just garbage, growls Olympic medalist Tom Dolan. When I hear someone say something like that, I just ignore it because it tells me that person is uneducated.

Corticosteroids, such as Flovent (fluticasone), a common medication used by asthmatics, are not the same kinds of steroids that cheating athletes use to build muscle and endurance.

Corticosteroids act differently than anabolic steroids. They open up constricted bronchial tubes and calm the inflammation in the linings of the lungs. But a steroid is a drug and swimmers on asthma medicines must inform the sports governing bodies and must undergo drug testing.

It nauseates me, declares an angry Amy Van Dyken, four-time Olympic gold medalist. Im taking medications to save my life and yet Im more likely to be banned for taking asthma medication than someone taking human growth hormone.

Play fair

Swimmers with asthma are equally frustrated by the notion that non-asthmatic swimmers can somehow benefit from taking the same type of inhalable medication in order to better their performance in the pool.

I can see how some people could mistakenly come to that conclusion, says Tom Malchow, an Olympic bronze medalist and also an asthmatic. Asthma medications improve breathingbut theres no proof they enhance performance.

His sentiments are echoed by swimmers and medical experts a like. These drugs have been studied, says William Storms, M.D., an allergist and asthma specialist in Colorado Springs who works with swimmers. There is no evidence that asthma medications enhance a non-asthmatic swimmers performance.

They just level the playing field, according to Kurt Grote, the 1997 national breaststroke champion Grote, who also has asthma. All asthma meds do is bring a swimmer up to baseline. Many asthmatics are forced to take large amounts of medications because they are subject to a host of ailments from allergies to pneumonia (due to trapped mucus that leads to lung infections). Im taking five medications each day, says Grote, but Im constantly looking for ways to eliminate meds or reduce the doses.

Likewise, Malchow is on a daily multi-medication regimen for asthma and allergies. Laughs Van Dyken, I need to make a necklace for my inhaler, I use it that much. Dolan battles acid refluxchronic heartburnin addition to his asthma. While the two conditions are not related, they definitely aggravate each other, he says.

Asthma medications are not supplements or energy boosters, they are serious prescription medications. Its a pretty sad state of affairs, says Van Dyken. I wake up every night and take my medication because I cant breathe, and somebody wants to take asthma medication to swim better? Not many asthmatic swimmers have patience for this thinking.

What a joke, says Gerry Vetter, 44, Masters swimmer with the NuWave Masters in New Orleans, La. Lets starve our lungs so we can take performance enhancersits the oxygen, stupid.

You can even try alternatives if they still dont believe you

Your prescribed medications are the only way to treat your asthma (see Treat Your Asthma). But you may want to talk to your doctor about trying some of these alternatives, which could relieve some of your symptoms.

Eat C. Take supplements of vitamin C and/or eat more antioxidant-rich foods like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, showed that a diet rich in antioxidants increased lung capacity by five percent.

Visit a chiropractor. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed a slight improvement in symptoms and expelled air volume in some children with asthma who underwent chiropractic care.

Get a massage. If stress seems to intensify your asthma symptoms, you may benefit from a professional massage. It will help relieve muscle tension and reduce your levels of stress hormones.

Take allergy medicine. About 80 percent of people with asthma have allergies as well. Ask your doctor about medications such as Allegra or Claritin to help control those symptoms.

Try coffee. The caffeine in coffee is a mild bronchodilator. A cup coupled with a whiff from your inhaler may help short-circuit some breathing problems. Dont over-do caffeine, though. Too much will make you jittery, and a lot can get you disqualified from racing.

Go herbalcautiously. Green tea has been touted as a remedy for lots of ailments, including asthma. The evidence is inconclusive at best, but green tea is tasty and delivers some antioxidants. Avoid a preparation called Asthma Away. It contains ephedra, banned by most sporting authorities.

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