Why Am I Coughing After Running
As an avid runner, my husband has been known to have bouts with EIAF, also called “runner’s cough.” He describes it as feeling like he’s got something stuck in his throat that won’t budge no matter how hard he tries to swallow. That means you’ve either developed a cold or maybe even pneumonia. Or…you’re having an allergic reaction to pollen on your run.
It can be scary when you start getting these dry coughs while running. If you don’t know what’s causing them, they can make you feel miserable — especially if you keep experiencing them over and over again. And you may not want to stop moving just because you think you might have allergies. But there are some things runners should consider before heading out into nature.
EIAF affects about 10 percent of people who regularly do moderate physical activity. Exercise-induced asthma isn’t a life-threatening medical emergency, but it does cause major problems. Shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and congestion all occur after heavy exertion. In severe cases, sufferers experience anaphylaxis, which is similar to a serious allergy attack where the body releases histamine.
The good news is that EIAF usually goes away within 24 hours of stopping your workout. On the next page we’ll take a look at what triggers EIAF so you understand why it happens and what you can do to prevent it.
What Causes Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction?
Signs You Have EIB
How Can I Prevent EIAF?
What Causes Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction?
In order to get better at diagnosing EIAF and preventing it from happening to you, let’s first talk a little bit about airway physiology. Your air passages begin in the nose and then branch down through your mouth and throat until they end in two main tubes: the trachea and the bronchi. These pass through the windpipe and windpipes respectively. At the end of each tube, the passage branches off into smaller tubes that lead to the different lobes of your lung.
Because of their small size, the smallest branching tubes are located near the outermost layer of your lungs. This outer layer contains mucus, a sticky substance produced by glands throughout your nose and throat that helps trap allergens and bacteria. When you inhale, air passes over these tiny tubes and pushes the mucus up toward the back of your throat. Once those particles reach the top, you swallow them. Otherwise, they would go straight into your bloodstream and travel around your body.
When you run, however, you breathe faster than normal and exhale more forcefully than usual. As a result, the amount of air passing through your windpipe increases dramatically. Some of that extra air comes right past the branching point between your windpipe and your throat, where the airways narrow significantly. While the rest of the increased air pressure travels down through your windpipe, the sudden increase in airflow forces most of the excess mucus deeper inside your lungs.
There, it builds up and becomes trapped in the narrower airways. With nowhere else to go, the mucus plugs together, making breathing difficult. Over time, the buildup of mucus can eventually become so thick that it completely blocks the airways. This is when bronchial asthma kicks in.
Bronchial asthma occurs when the immune system attacks the cells that line the walls of our airways. Because these cells produce too much mucus, they plug up the airways and reduce the flow of oxygen to our lungs. Asthma patients must use inhalers to release medicine deep into their lungs and control their inflammation.
Now that we know a little bit more about how the airways work, let’s get into signs that you might have EIAF.
Signs You Have EIB
If you experience any of the following symptoms, it could mean that you have exercise-induced bronchoconstriction:
Shortness of breath
Swelling of the lips, tongue, or eyes
Runners often describe these symptoms as being worse when they continue exercising even though the intensity seems lower. They say it feels like you haven’t run long enough. This is because the effects of EIAF build up gradually.
While EIAF doesn’t always happen immediately, it tends to develop within four to eight hours of intense exercise. If you think you might have EIAF, try to avoid any additional workouts until its effect wears off. Then call your doctor.
Doctors generally diagnose EIAF using spirometry tests. Spirometries measure the volume of air going in and out of your lungs. Doctors will compare your results before and after you exercise to see whether your pulmonary function decreases. They can also test your blood for antibodies against certain types of pollen, dust mites, animal dander, fungi, and other substances that trigger EIAF.
Sometimes doctors will prescribe medications to relieve symptoms. For example, antihistamines can help decrease swelling and itching caused by allergies. Steroid hormones can improve mucous production as well. Beta agonists can relax smooth muscles in the airways to open them up. Finally, leukotriene antagonists can block chemicals released by white blood cells that trigger EIAF.
But remember, EIAF is a temporary problem. Most people recover quickly once they discontinue running. However, if you have persistent symptoms, speak with your physician.
Next, we’ll discuss ways you can prevent EIAF without giving up your favorite sport.
Prevention Is Better Than Cure
If you’re diagnosed with EIAF, your doctor may recommend taking medication to relieve the symptoms. Sometimes patients need to take steroids to reduce inflammation, antihistamines to alleviate itching, and/or beta blockers to relax smooth muscle tissues. Be sure to follow your doctor’s orders exactly to get the best treatment possible.
However, prevention is better than cure. Here are some tips to help you stay healthy:
Limit exposure to environmental irritants such as pollen or pet dander. Take showers instead of baths to limit the number of times you come into contact with these substances. Avoid wearing perfume, hairspray, deodorant, or lotions containing fragrances. Use natural soap rather than harsh detergents. Clean your skin with mild cleanser to avoid irritating your sensitive nasal membranes. Consider taking immunotherapy shots to desensitize yourself to common allergens.
Wear a mask whenever you run outdoors during peak pollen seasons. Pollen grains contain carbohydrates that trigger an allergic response. A face mask keeps pollens from landing in your exposed ears, nose, and throat. Wear gloves and sunglasses when outside to protect your hands and eyes.
Use an electronic cigarette or vaporizer to avoid breathing in secondhand smoke.
Avoid overexertion. Don’t push yourself beyond your limits. Even a brief jog at a fast pace can trigger EIAF.
Don’t drink alcohol before running. Alcohol relaxes muscles and prevents them from contracting properly, leading to poor form and injury.
Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 reduces inflammation in the lining of the airways, which can prevent EIAF. Foods high in omega-3 include salmon, walnuts, flaxseed, and avocados.
Even if you don’t suffer from EIAF, you still want to eat nutritious food. Fruits and vegetables supply vitamins and minerals essential for proper growth and development. Minerals such as iron and calcium strengthen bones and teeth, while vitamin D promotes strong and healthy joints.
Finally, the last tip is one you probably already knew: hydrate! Drinking plenty of fluids both before and during exercise will prevent dehydration. Dehydration makes your body retain water, which leads to bloating and discomfort. Plus, when you’re out there sweating, you lose electrolytes and nutrients that help power your heart and muscles.
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