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Prevalence of lower airway dysfunction in athletes: a systematic review and meta-analysis by a subgroup of the IOC consensus group on ‘acute respiratory illness in the athlete’


Objective To report the prevalence of lower airway dysfunction in athletes and highlight risk factors and susceptible groups.

Design Systematic review and meta-analysis.

Data sources PubMed, EBSCOhost and Web of Science (1 January 1990 to 31 July 2020).

Eligibility criteria Original full-text studies, including male or female athletes/physically active individuals/military personnel (aged 15–65 years) who had a prior asthma diagnosis and/or underwent screening for lower airway dysfunction via self-report (ie, patient recall or questionnaires) or objective testing (ie, direct or indirect bronchial provocation challenge).

Results In total, 1284 studies were identified. Of these, 64 studies (n=37 643 athletes) from over 21 countries (81.3% European and North America) were included. The prevalence of lower airway dysfunction was 21.8% (95% CI 18.8% to 25.0%) and has remained stable over the past 30 years. The highest prevalence was observed in elite endurance athletes at 25.1% (95% CI 20.0% to 30.5%) (Q=293, I2=91%), those participating in aquatic (39.9%) (95% CI 23.4% to 57.1%) and winter-based sports (29.5%) (95% CI 22.5% to 36.8%). In studies that employed objective testing, the highest prevalence was observed in studies using direct bronchial provocation (32.8%) (95% CI 19.3% to 47.2%). A high degree of heterogeneity was observed between studies (I2=98%).

Conclusion Lower airway dysfunction affects approximately one in five athletes, with the highest prevalence observed in those participating in elite endurance, aquatic and winter-based sporting disciplines. Further longitudinal, multicentre studies addressing causality (ie, training status/dose–response relationship) and evaluating preventative strategies to mitigate against the development of lower airway dysfunction remain an important priority for future research.

  • asthma
  • athletes
  • epidemiology
  • risk factor

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