Rugby asthmatics: (from left) Al Kellock, Ben Gollings and Cian Healy

Having asthma doesn’t mean you can’t be as fit as the next athlete. Ireland team doctor Eanna Falvey gives you the low-down

Baseline asthma can be related to an allergy to pollen or dust, whereas exercise-induced asthma is brought on by highly intense physical activity, especially in cold weather. So, everyone involved in winter sports should be screened for exercise-induced asthma to get the correct treatment.

It’s commonly thought that asthma sufferers experience problems getting enough air into their lungs, but in fact they’re unable to get the air out. They then can’t get the next breath in, so feel short of breath.

To test if someone is asthmatic, we measure their forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1), or how much air someone can move in one second. If there is a drop of 10% or more in that figure after exercise, they have exercise-induced asthma.

All sports players subject to World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) drugs tests need to undergo testing to obtain evidence and confirmation from a doctor that they’re asthmatic before they can legally take medication.

Normally testing involves running on treadmills, but at the IRFU we devised a rugby-specific challenge. As rugby players have to use their upper limbs, chest and back, our challenge involved using a weighted medicine ball that players had to pass against a wall, bounce, and jump and run with, interspersed with 20-metre sprints to mimic a game-type situation. Everyone had their lung function tested before and after the exercise, and we examined how it had changed to decide whether or not treatment was required.

One player at the peak of his fitness was found to be asthmatic despite having experienced no symptoms. Following treatment, he had a fantastic following season, and we’d like to think we had some effect on this!

It’s important to get the right medication, as evidence suggests that if asthma remains untreated it can cause ongoing changes to a person’s lungs, which can cause problems later in life.

Dr Falvey says…
- Everyone involved in a winter sport should be screened for asthma
- Exercise-induced asthma is different to baseline asthma
- You may be asthmatic, even if you’ve never had any symptoms
- Don’t leave asthma untreated – it can damage your lungs

This article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.

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