By Abigail Funk
A disproportionate number of winter sport athletes are diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma every year. Studies have estimated that up to half of elite cross country skiers, ice skaters, and ice hockey players have the condition--which begs the question, what does the cold weather have to do with it?
Christopher Randolph, MD, a clinical professor at Yale University and a physician at the Center for Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in Waterbury, Conn., told The New York Times that most experts think the problem for winter sport athletes is the dryness of cold air, not the temperature. He explained that lungs need water-saturated air and if the air being pulled into an athlete's bronchial tubes is too dry, the cells lining the airway release their own moisture to humidify it. As those cells release their own moisture, others release allergic chemicals that begin inflammation, slowly closing the athlete's throat. "Think of a sponge being squeezed," he said.
Previously, it was assumed the cold air was the culprit for winter sport athletes, who spend countless hours outside training in freezing temperatures. But as more studies are completed, a lack of moisture--lost through sweat, saliva, and tears--actually appears to be the common thread. The Times also spoke to Warren Lockette, MD, a medical officer at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, who recently completed a study of Marines--both with and without exercise-induced asthma--and found those who sweat, spit, and cried were most likely to experience exercise-induced asthma. "There was obviously a common thread here," he said, "and it involved moisture."
To add to the asthma issue many athletes will already be facing in the cold-weather climate in Vancouver, the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology said last week that trees like red alder, birch, and oak will be at their peak pollination during the Games. The common reactions for those allergic are flu-like symptoms.
If so many athletes have asthma, some of the world's greatest must be among them, right? There are many, and one of the most famous is Bill Koch, a cross country skier. Koch has exercise-induced asthma, yet beat the perennial powerhouses on his way to silver in 1976. Since '76, no American male cross country skier has been able to duplicate Koch's feat. Mark Spitz, Jackie Joyner-Kerser, and Nancy Hogsehead are other athletes who had Olympic success despite having asthma.
Certain measures will be taken in Vancouver for athletes with exercise-induced asthma, including monitoring air quality at both the outdoor events and inside the Olympic facilities. The Vancouver Organizing Committee also replaced 19 traditionally used propane-powered zambonis with electric models to cut down on air pollution at the ice rinks.
Abigail Funk is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.