Upper Respiratory Symptoms in Athletes

Upper Respiratory Symptoms in AthletesAsthma and allergy are common amongst athletes. More than half of them have hay fever and a significant percentage will have asthma, up to a quarter of elite athletic teams. In swimmers, asthma and exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) are more prevalent. Many people believe that regular exercise gives resistance against infection. However, there is a common perception among elite athletes and their coaches that heavy exertion lowers resistance and is a predisposing factor to upper respiratory tract infections (URTI).

Can Exercise Aggravate Upper Respiratory Symptoms?

Many studies have shown a link between weakened immune function and increased exercise workloads, which supposedly increases the susceptibility to URTI. In contrast to moderate or intermittent physical activity, prolonged and intensive exertion causes numerous changes in immunity that may reflect physiological stress and suppression. Athletes who went through strenuous exercise regularly may be at increased risk of URTI during heavy exercise and for a couple of weeks after race events.


Exercise is a common cause of asthma symptoms. This is usually referred to as exercise-induced asthma (EIA). About 80% to 90% of all individuals who have allergic asthma will experience symptoms of EIA with strenuous exercise or activity. This is often the most common cause of asthma symptoms among teenagers and young adults.

Symptoms of EIA include wheezing, tightness or pain in the chest, coughing, and in some cases prolonged shortness of breath. Some symptoms are more visible than others, meaning EIA can sometimes go undiagnosed. If you get winded or tired easily during or after exercise, cough after coming inside from outdoor activities, or cannot run for more than a few minutes without stopping, you might have EIA.


An allergy to airborne substances such as grass, tree, rape or weed and shrub pollens, which affects the eyes and the upper respiratory passages including nose, sinus, and throat is commonly called allergic rhinitis, hay fever, or seasonal allergy. Hot, dry, windy days are more likely to have a lot of pollen in the air, which is why hay fever is more prevalent during this weather.

Athletes tend to increase ventilation during exercise. Because of this, they breathe in something they can be allergic to. Sneezing, bloodshot eyes, itchy skin, and asthma symptoms are the typical complaints athletes present with. The allergic response causes nasal congestion, tearing, breathing difficulties, fatigue, and mood changes, which affect athletic performance.

Physiotherapy Management

Physiotherapy can help with a variety of medical respiratory conditions, with the aim of breathlessness management and symptom control, mobility and function improvement or maintenance, and airway clearance and cough enhancement or support. Physiotherapists are usually central in providing pulmonary rehabilitation and may be instrumental in the non-invasive ventilation service.

Physiotherapy management of upper respiratory symptoms includes breathing pattern retraining and relaxed breathing techniques. The aim of breathing pattern retraining is to develop a more efficient respiratory pattern, which therefore reduces breathlessness.

A physiotherapist can help with postural and musculoskeletal dysfunction and pain, as well as improving continence especially during coughing and forced expiratory maneouvers.

Our Perth physiotherapists can help with upper respiratory symptoms. Call us at 9444 8729 today!