Asthma is no reason to stay out of the pool

Tom Malchow should lead the United States in the 200-meter butterfly at the Sydney Olympic Games  Credit: Donal Miralle/Allsport
After winning three gold medals at the 1984 Olympics, swimmer Nancy Hogshead was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma. Despite Hogsheads having symptoms for 10 years, an asthmatic brother, a doctor for a father, and team doctors standing on the deck watching her cough, her asthma had been overlooked.

Its because I just didnt fit the picture, she says. Everyone, including myself, just thought I had small lungs and got sick easily.

If that sounds familiar, rise from your sickbed. These days there is no asthmatic picture, and coughing during practice or feeling exhausted afterwards does not automatically mean youre out of shape. It could mean youre suffering from asthma. More and more people have the disease, and a large number of them are swimmers. And some of those swimmers have won Olympic medals

You should see my practice, says Dave Salo, Ph.D., coach of the Irvine Novaquatic Club, an age-group team in Irvine, California. There are inhalers lined up all along the pool deck.

If you feel like youre breathing through a straw when you swim, youre a potential candidate. Rest assured youre not alone and theres a lot you can do to manage it.

Know the symptoms

If you have a history of recurrent wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath or chest tightness, you should have your doctor test you for asthma, says Karen Gross, M.D., professor of family medicine at the University of West Virginia. You especially need medical attention, she says, if the symptoms get worse with exposure to irritants and heavy exercise. Its easy to dismiss the symptoms.

I thought I was out of shape, says Prebble McLaughlin, 34, Masters swimmer, head age-group coach of Alief Aquatic Club in Houston, Texas, and former assistant swim coach at Rice University. I had been swimming, then stopped. When I couldnt make it through practice, I ignored it at first, then went to my doctor, who diagnosed asthma, she says.

Stay in the pool

Asthma is caused by uncooperative bronchial tubes that spasm and tighten up when exposed to triggers like cold air, animal dander (skin or hair), or a heavy-duty workout. The warm, moist and dander-free air of most pool areas is more forgiving to people with asthma. That forgiving environment is what got Kurt Grote into the sport.

At 14, I was having a pretty hard time with soccer because I was allergic to grass, so my doctor told me to switch to swimming, says Grote, who has had asthma since he was 6 months old.

Smart doctor. Grote is the 1997 national breaststroke champion and a 1996 Olympic gold medalist. Something similar happened to Tom Malchow, a 1996 Olympic bronze medalist, who was diagnosed with asthma at the age of 3.

I wanted to play football, but I was discouraged from playing outside in cold air because it would bring on an attack. I was told to try swimming because the air inside was moist and the environment was controlled.

Stay active

Despite how it might feel sometimes, exercise can help your asthma. Your lungs work better when theyre challenged regularly, says William Storms, M.D., an allergist and asthma specialist in Colorado Springs who works with swimmers.

Mind your medication
Once youre diagnosed with asthma, take your treatment regimen seriously. Take care of the little things about asthma and you can avoid big problems later on, says Hogshead, co-author of Asthma and Exercise (Holt, 1990). Taking care of little things means pre-medicating if necessary and always having your inhaler handy. Dont be embarrassed to bring out your inhaler in public places like restaurants, says Amy Van Dyken, a four-time gold medalist at the 1996 Olympics and asthmatic.

Look at it this way: Which is more embarrassingtaking out your inhaler or having an ambulance crew coming in the restaurant to resuscitate you? Van Dyken says. I have an inhaler on every floor of my house and I keep an extra one in my swim bag.

Avoid irritants

Its not enough to use an inhaler or pull yourself out of the pool when you need a breath. You need to remember the other asthma triggers, such as dust, mold, pollen, smoke, and animal dander.

Smoke out. Im not afraid to tell people to stop smoking, says Van Dyken. Most smokers feel bad and put out their cigarettes. Her family and friends love dining out with her. I dont mind being the scapegoat, she says. We all breathe better.

Pet peeves. If you have trouble breathing around pets, dont spend a lot of time near them. As soon as you notice a problem, you should leave because the situation can turn into an emergency, says Harold Nelson, M.D., senior staff physician in the department of medicine at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver,

Chlorine curse. Although pool areas are generally friendly to asthmatic lungs, chlorine can act as an irritant. One time at the Nashville pool, there were so many people in the pool kicking up the chlorine, it triggered my asthma, says Van Dyken. Since then I always try to make sure I sit near a door.

Exercise caution. Exertion can also trigger asthma, but most swimmers know that already. My swimmers have had asthma for a while, so they understand that theyll have to put up with a little more discomfort, says Dave Salo. They know when they need to use their inhalers.

Know the rules about asthma drugs and other alternative treatments

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