Hits & Myths: Is it OK to allow asthmatic children to play sport?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2014, 11:08am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2014, 11:08am

Is it okay for kids with asthma to play sports?

The straight answer: Yes

The facts: It's perfectly fine for asthmatic children to take up sports. In fact, many elite and Olympic athletes are asthmatic, like British marathon runner Paula Radcliffe and American swimmer Amy Van Dyken.

According to Dr Amos Lo, a specialist in otorhinolaryngology at Matilda International Hospital, being active may help strengthen an asthmatic child's breathing muscles.

Asthma is an allergic airway disease in which the small airways, called bronchi, become inflamed due to an allergic trigger. When these airways are inflamed, mucous is produced, which blocks the airways.

About 11 per cent of children in Hong Kong have asthma

In addition, the mucosal lining of the airways thickens and the muscle around the airways contracts, narrowing the airways further. When an asthmatic person's airways are constricted like this, they will experience shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and chest tightness.

In severe cases, adds Lo, the airways are so constricted that oxygen is blocked from entering the air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs. This condition is called "silent lung".

Common triggers for asthma attacks include allergens such as dust mites, pollens, weeds, and cat and dog dander; irritants like pollutants; a change in temperature or humidity; and upper respiratory tract infections.

Asthma is potentially life threatening and, apart from the clinical symptoms, it can affect the daily life of asthmatics because it can result in a restriction of activities and missed days from school or work.

Asthma is not a curable disease. The symptoms simply come and go during the lifetime of an asthma sufferer. The nearest "cure" we have for asthma today is immunotherapy, says Lo.

This involves giving very small amounts of allergen to an asthmatic child over a long period in the hopes of modifying their immune system so that it develops "blocking antibodies" against the allergens.

About 11 per cent of children in Hong Kong suffer from asthma. Some may stop having attacks when they're older, but, generally, the more severe the asthma, the less likely the symptoms will disappear later in life.

Exercise may also trigger an asthma attack. But as long as the asthmatic child manages their condition properly, they can do any sport they wish.

The key to getting asthma under control: timely and regular medication, and of course, keeping the living environment free of allergens.

That means avoiding soft toys, changing bed linen often, using an air purifier, frequent vacuuming, and replacing carpets and curtains with wood flooring and blinds.

If the asthmatic experiences any sign of airway sensitivity while exercising - for example, coughing and wheezing - they should stop what they are doing and seek medical advice immediately, Lo advises. Asthmatic youngsters should also avoid exercising in cold or dry weather, as these conditions may trigger an asthmatic attack.

Some of the best sports for asthmatic children are the ones that do not expose them to long periods in cold, dry air.

Swimming and biking are ideal. Sports that require short bursts of energy are also acceptable, like rugby, track and field events, and sprinting.

Lo says that an asthmatic child can indulge in long-distance running and cycling, soccer, basketball and cross-country skiing, as long as they have got their condition under control with medication and have gone for a period of time without an attack.