This article is from the In-Depth Report Winning in the Olympics
60-Second Health

Many Olympians Suffer from Asthma

The most common chronic condition among all Olympic athletes is asthma. But many don't start suffering symptoms until their later years, suggesting that endurance training could be a trigger. Katherine Harmon reports

Olympic athletes might appear to have the cardiovascular and respiratory systems of superheroes. But a new study reveals that one in 12 Olympic athletes uses asthma treatments. The findings are in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. [Kenneth Fitch, An Overview of Asthma and Airway Hyper-Responsiveness in Olympic Athletes]

That usage has jumped since the mid-‘90s. So the International Olympic Committee now requires athletes to provide medical proof of an asthma diagnosis before allowing them to use an inhaler during the competition.

Both cold and polluted air increase the risk for asthma, affecting winter and summer athletes alike. Dangerous ozone and particulate matter are worse in warm weather, so athletes in the Summer Olympics are slightly more likely to suffer from asthma. Winter events, such as cross-country skiing, can also damage airways with cold air and ice particles.

But athletes with asthma have a better chance of winning—and not because the drugs enhance their performance. Asthma occurs more often in older endurance athletes, suggesting that years of intense training could be to blame for the condition—and to thank for the conditioning.

—Katherine Harmon

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]     

[Interested in science and the Olympics? Check out the new Scientific American e-book, the Science of Sports: Winning at the Olympics. Available in most popular e-book formats including for the Kindle and the Nook. Just $3.99 wherever fine electrons flow or electromagnetic waves pass.]

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