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Researchers report asthma is common in 1996 U.S. Olympic athletes

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- At least one in six athletes representing the United States in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta had a history of asthma, according to a study published in the November issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Researchers at the University of Iowa and the U.S. Olympic Committee sought to examine how many athletes in the 1996 Olympic Games had a history of asthma, had taken asthma medications or had symptoms that suggested asthma. Asthma is a lung disease characterized by tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, wheezing and cough.

To examine the prevalence of asthma, Dr. John Weiler, UI professor of internal medicine, and his co-authors analyzed responses from an extensive, mandatory medical history questionnaire required of all U.S. Olympic athletes competing in the 1996 Olympic Games. The questionnaire was completed during team processing in Atlanta two weeks prior to participation in the Olympic Games, and responses were reviewed with each athlete. The questionnaire, designed by the U.S. Olympic Committee Sports Medicine Division with input from Weiler and his colleagues, included specific questions regarding allergic and respiratory disorders.

Some 699 athletes completed the questionnaire. The researchers found that 117 (16.7 percent) of the athletes had a history of asthma, took asthma medications, or both. Some 73 (10.4 percent) of the athletes had active asthma, based on their need for asthma medication at the time of the questionnaire or their need for medication on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. Some 4 to 7 percent of the general U.S. population is reported to have asthma.

Among the Olympic athletes, asthma was most common among cyclists and mountain bikers and least common in athletes competing in badminton, beach volleyball, table tennis and volleyball. The percentage of athletes in individual sports who had taken asthma medications or had a history of asthma was as follows:
* cycling and mountain biking--50 percent
* synchronized swimming and swimming--29.6 percent
* canoe/kayak, rowing and sailing/yachting--25.3 percent
* track and field and modern pentathlon--18.2 percent
* boxing, wrestling and judo--15.6 percent
* archery, equestrian and shooting--13.5 percent
* diving and weightlifting--11.1 percent
* fencing, gymnastics and rhythmic gymnastics--11.1 percent
* baseball and softball--10 percent
* basketball, field hockey, soccer, team handball and water polo--8.9 percent
* badminton, beach volleyball, table tennis, tennis and volleyball--7.5 percent

"It had long been known that certain high-profile Olympic athletes had asthma. What was not known was the total number of athletes who had asthma," Weiler said. He noted that one previous attempt had been made to determine how common exercise-induced asthma was among U.S. Olympic athletes. It was reported that 11.2 percent of athletes participating in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles had exercise-induced asthma. That study's numbers, however, were less precise because they were not obtained from the medical history questionnaire, according to Weiler.

Interestingly, nearly 30 percent of the 1996 U.S. Olympians who had asthma or took asthma medications won team or individual medals in their Olympic competition. They fared as well as athletes without asthma (28.7 percent) who earned team or individual medals.

"This study tells young athletes that asthma should not prevent them from competing in sports or even having the goal to win an Olympic medal," Weiler said. "Medicines are now available that may allow asthmatic athletes to compete without disability."

The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology is due Nov. 16. It is the official publication of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI). The AAAAI is the largest professional medical specialty organization in the United States, representing allergists, asthma specialists, clinical immunologists, allied health professionals and others with a special interest in the research and treatment of allergic disease. Established in 1943, the AAAAI has more than 5,700 members in the United States, Canada and 50 other countries.