Winter Olympics: Why Many Athletes Will Be Struggling With Asthma



By Neil Williams and John Dickinson in The Conversation.


As the world’s best winter athletes compete in PyeongChang for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, the heavy demands of both training and competition will leave many of them with breathing problems.

Exercise-induced asthma is the most common medical problem among winter Olympic athletes, especially among cross-country skiers. Nearly 50% of these athletes suffer from the condition, closely followed by short-track speed skaters at 43%. For figure skaters it’s 21%, Nordic combined it’s 17%, and for ice hockey it’s 15%. By comparison, around 9% of the UK general population suffers from asthma.

The combination of sustained high breathing combined with cold, dry air increases winter athletes’ risk of asthma-related conditions. (Indoor speed skaters also have to deal with increased pollution in the form of particulate matter from ice resurfacing vehicles.) Cross-country skiers, for example, increase their breathing rate from about six litres per minute at rest, to 180 litres per minute during a race. This huge increase in breathing results in large volumes of cold, dry air being drawn into the lungs. This can cause the smooth muscle in the airway to narrow, reducing the athletes’ ability to breathe normally.


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