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Release: Sept 22, 2000

UI study: Asthma symptoms common among U.S. athletes in 1998 Winter Olympics

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Asthma appears to be more common among elite American athletes who participate in winter sports than those who participate in summer sports, according to a University of Iowa study of Olympic competitors.

The study analyzed the asthma history and symptoms of the 196 United States participants in the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, and compared the results to previous findings for American athletes in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. The study was published in the August issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

"Asthma is common even among elite athletes, and it appears that at least one in five American athletes who participated in the 1998 Winter Olympics had the condition," said John Weiler, M.D., UI professor of internal medicine and co-principal investigator. "This compares to our previous finding that one in six American athletes at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games had a history of asthma or had used medication for the condition."

Edward J. Ryan, of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) in Colorado Springs, Colo., also helped lead the study. Weiler said the researchers did not examine each athlete for asthma but looked at their medical history questionnaires, which all athletes were required to complete. The questionnaire asks approximately 60 questions and was designed by the USOC Sports Medicine Division.

Of the 196 winter athletes, 44, or 22.4 percent, reported that they were currently taking asthma medication, had been diagnosed as having asthma or both. Comparatively, 16.7 percent of the U.S. athletes in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games recorded the same responses. Weiler, UI colleagues and the USOC reported those findings in 1998, also in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Winter athletes participating in the nordic-combined, cross-country and short-track were most likely to have been told they had asthma or had taken medicine to control asthma, with nearly 60.7 percent, 17 of 28 individuals, reporting one or both of these conditions. In contrast, only 2.8 percent (one individual) of the 36 bobsled, biathlon, luge and ski-jumping athletes said they had been diagnosed with asthma or taken asthma medication.

In addition, more females than males participating in the winter games reported an asthma condition or medication use.

Athletes without asthma fared somewhat better in the 1998 winter games than those with asthma, with 17.8 percent of the former group winning an individual or team medal, and 11.4 percent of the group with asthma taking home an award.

In the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, the percentages of those winning medals were nearly equally distributed with 28.7 percent of the U.S. participants without asthma earning medals and nearly 30 percent of the athletes with asthma winning medals.

Weiler said the environment in which exercise is performed can contribute to breathing problems.

"Breathing cold air is more likely to trigger asthma than warmer air," he said. "This is thought to be due to airway cooling and the subsequent re-warming that occurs. Another hypothesis is that the loss of fluids from the airway, which can occur more readily in cold than in warm air, causes the asthma attack."

Weiler said that another group of investigators has completed exercise studies in a portion of the 196 athletes who participated in the 1998 winter games. Those studies confirm the observations that Weiler and Ryan have reported.

"Their data confirm that at least one in five athletes competing in the Nagano winter games probably had asthma," he said.

Based on the findings for both the 1996 summer and 1998 winter games, Weiler speculated that at least 20 percent of United States athletes currently participating in the 2000 Olympics have asthma.

He noted that with proper diagnosis and treatment, athletes with asthma can compete at the highest of levels, including the Olympics.

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