Rhonda Patt

Ask the Pediatrician: Does my child have asthma or is she just out of shape?

Q. Our 12-year-old daughter joined the track team this spring. She has been complaining of feeling short of breath when she runs at practice. How do we know if she has asthma or if this is just a normal part of “getting into shape?”

A. Asthma is a lung condition in which a person will have narrowing of the airways, or bronchospasm, in response to certain “triggers” in the environment. Triggers can include pollen, viruses or sudden changes in temperature. Most people who have a diagnosis of asthma will be affected during exercise.

Certain people may experience asthma symptoms only during exercise, but are otherwise symptom-free. These symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing. Some children with exercise-induced asthma may tire easily or avoid strenuous exercise.

Because the signs of exercise-induced asthma overlap with being tired or out-of-shape, the diagnosis can be difficult to make. Some information that can be useful to help distinguish the two includes:

▪ Family history of asthma or allergies.

▪ Prior episodes of wheezing as a young child or infant.

▪ History of allergies or eczema.

▪ How long the symptoms persist after stopping exercise.

In general, a person who does not have exercise-induced asthma will be able to catch her breath within a few minutes of resting. With exercise-induced asthma, however, symptoms often persist for 30 minutes or longer. Also, if a healthy child exercises on a regular basis, then her symptoms will improve or resolve over time. In comparison, a child with exercise-induced asthma may continue to appear short of breath even weeks or months into training.

If exercise-induced asthma is suspected, this should be brought to the attention of your child’s health care provider. A child may need to undergo further testing to determine the diagnosis. This may involve having the child run on a treadmill to provoke similar symptoms.

Exercise-induced asthma can be treated medically, and children can typically continue a successful career in competitive sports.

Rhonda Patt is a pediatrician with Charlotte Pediatric Clinic. Email living@charlotteobserver.com; put “pediatrician” in the subject line.