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Are asthma-like symptoms in elite athletes associated with classical features of asthma?


Background: Asthma is frequent in elite athletes and clinical studies in athletes have found increased airway inflammation.

Objective: To investigate asthma-like symptoms, airway inflammation, airway reactivity (AR) to mannitol and use of asthma medication in Danish elite athletes.

Methods: The study group consisted of 54 elite athletes (19 with doctor-diagnosed asthma), 22 non-athletes with doctor-diagnosed asthma (steroid naive for 4 weeks before the examination) and 35 non-athletes without asthma; all aged 18–35 years. Examinations (1 day): questionnaires, exhaled nitric oxide (eNO) in parts per billion, spirometry, skin prick test, AR to mannitol and blood samples. Induced sputum was done in subjects with asthma.

Results: No significant difference was found in values for eNO, AR and atopy between 42 elite athletes with and 12 without asthma-like symptoms. Elite athletes with doctor-diagnosed asthma had less AR (response dose ratio 0.02 (0.004) vs 0.08 (0.018) p<0.01) and fewer sputum eosinophils (0.8% (0–4.8) vs 6.0% (0–18.5), p<0.01) than non-athletes with doctor-diagnosed asthma. Use of inhaled corticosteroids was similar in the two groups (not significant). In all, 42 elite athletes had asthma-like symptoms but only 12 had evidence of current asthma. Elite athletes without asthma had asthma-like symptoms more frequently than non-athletes without asthma (68.6% vs 25.7%, p<0.001).

Conclusion: Asthma-like symptoms in elite athletes are not necessarily associated with classic features of asthma and alone should not give a diagnosis of asthma. More studies are needed to further investigate if and how the asthma phenotype of elite athletes differs from that of classical asthma.

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