Bronchospasm happens when the bronchial muscles that line the airways in the lungs contract. This results in restriction of the airway, and shortness of breath, as less air reaches the lungs. The feeling has been likened to breething through a bent straw. Bronchospasms are reversible, however.
Many asthmatics suffer from bronchospasms, but it can affect patients with other respiratory conditions. It is most often reported in patients over the age of 65, and in children. Exercise-induced bronchospasms are observed in athletes because strenuous physical activity can lead to a temporary contraction of the bronchial muscle.
Certain underlying medical conditions, medications, allergies and exercise can cause bronchospasms. The most common causes include:
The prevalence of exercise-induced bronchospasm is quite high at 5% to 20% of the general population, with a much higher prevalence in asthmatics. Scientists have found that it is particularly common among children (45%) and could be a predictor for asthma development in some kids.
When air is inhaled during exercise, the nose tries to warm up the air, but with increasing exercise duration and exertion, heat is lost, the airway cools down, and this causes our parasympathetic nervous system to contract the muscles lining the airways. This is also why breathing in cold air can be painful.
The most commonly observed symptoms of bronchospasm include:
Severe cases of bronchospasm require urgent medical attention. In severe bronchospasm, a patient may not make any wheezing or breath sounds, because their airways are so restricted that there is very little air movement.
Your doctor will usually examine your medical history and ask about asthma and other medical conditions as well as any allergies you may have. There are a variety of breathing tests a healthcare provider can perform to establish if further medical tests are required.
Treatment of bronchospasm will depend on the severity and the cause.
Patients with exercise-induced bronchospasms without asthma are advised to prevent bronchospasms by reducing their exercise intensity, or restricting exercise to warmer locations. A good physical warm-up before exercise has also been shown to be beneficial in reducing the severity of bronchospasm.
Prevention of bronchospasms is recommended in all cases. Patients should avoid triggers and reduce lung irritation by breathing through their nose when walking in cold weather.
To manage bronchospasms, a healthcare provider can prescribe bronchodilators. The medication is used to relax smooth muscles and widen the airways. Inhaled bronchodilators are recommended as they act faster than tablets or shots.
There are three types of bronchodilators:
Short-acting bronchodilators are used for fast relief from bronchospasm. They are taken as soon as an attack occurs to provide immediate relief. Some athletes use short-acting bronchodilators before they exercise to prevent bronchospasm. Their action lasts from 2 to 4 hours.
However, if you are using your short-term bronchodilators more than twice a week, it may be a sign of asthma. Speak to a doctor.
Long-acting bronchodilators can be used every day to manage symptoms long term. They are usually prescribed if you suffer from severe or recurring bronchospasms alongside asthma. Typically, they are used once or twice a day.
Common side effects of all types of bronchodilators include:
If you experience any uncommon side effects or your condition isn’t improving, seek urgent medical attention.