The Moving Crew

Fitness in a Time of Mold and Pollen

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Okay, so you're buying tissues in bulk these days. You're coughing and sneezing, cursing the pollen count and -- maybe worst of all, if you're a committed jogger like me -- having your usual hour's run come to a wheezing halt after 20 minutes.

Ah, spring in Washington. (Our motto: "Even if you never had allergies before, you'll have 'em here." Comes in a close second to "it's the humidity" in local folklore.)

But maybe it's not allergies you're battling. Maybe it's something more serious: asthma. I've been fighting the condition all my life and never knew it until a few years ago, when those abortive runs were diagnosed first as signs of exercise-induced asthma and later allergic asthma as well. For me, April really is the cruelest month, when I'm longing to run outdoors and finding it almost impossible.

Many adults (like me) grew up when only those really dire cases of choking were recognized as asthma, and our symptoms were brushed off as "sensitivities" or "sinus problems." But asthma is the most commonly undiagnosed condition in the country, according to Washington immunologist Henry Fishman, and it kills 3,500 to 5,000 Americans every year. In fact, you may have both allergies and asthma: Fishman says that 80 percent of asthmatics have allergies, and 20 percent of those diagnosed with allergies have asthma as well. And since asthma can be progressive, the season of the AQI (air quality index, for the uninitiated) should signal that it's time to consult an expert.

But Fishman does encourage asthmatics and allergy sufferers to exercise, once the doctor gives the okay. "It's good for the brain, good for the heart, it's good for the bones and good for the soul."

For springtime exercisers, it's particularly important to know your enemy. Fishman, who has consulted on numerous radio, TV and Web site programs, says an asthma attack begins when the trigger allergen is breathed in or when the nasal passages are cooled or dried out. So while it seems a no-brainer to shift to indoor exercise during allergy season, it's not that simple. Some asthmatics react to swimming, for instance: Mold or water-borne pollen brushes the nose, which is being cooled by the water, and . . . boom, asthma has you spluttering.

(Parents, you'll want to pay double attention: Asthma is the most common chronic illness in children, but many teens become asymptomatic. Their asthma has not disappeared; it has just gone underground and may reappear later. So talk to your child's coach about any coughing or sluggishness; better yet, take the kids to a doctor before signing them up.)

Regardless, listen to your body when you exercise. If the pollen is only an annoyance, that's one thing. If you feel faint or have trouble working out, cease and desist. "It is possible to run through an asthma episode," Fishman says, "but it's a terrible idea. . . . Macho and asthma don't mix." Six-time Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee would agree; she ignored her diagnosis for 10 years until a near-fatal attack in 1993.

Meanwhile, limit irritation. For mild allergy symptoms, an over-the-counter decongestant or antihistamine may help. (Fishman likes loratadine [Claritin, Alavert] and cromolyn sodium [NasalCrom].) For more-bothersome symptoms, consult your doctor: Fishman is adamant that no OTC asthma medicine is safe.

His other recommendations for allergy-challenged exercise enthusiasts: Take medication 30 minutes before a workout, to give it time to get into your system. Wear a mask or bandanna. Head out early -- around 5 or 6 a.m. (before sunlight activates tree and flower pollen) -- or late (after it has closed down). Run after rain, which washes pollen out of the air, or even through it.

Here are some tricks I've picked up: Wear sports goggles or a headband to prevent sweat from dribbling pollen into your eyes. Look for running gloves with terry cloth backs; they're good for wiping runny noses while capturing the pollen so you can't spread it around. Wash your hands the minute you walk in the door. Deposit your exercise clothes directly into the wash.

Even if you don't generally wear eye makeup -- this works for men, too -- buy a jar of hypoallergenic makeup remover pads and clean your eyelashes, where allergens nest; eyedrops are soothing, too. Use a saline solution or nasal spray as you get into the shower. Resist opening the car windows; pollen will stick to your dashboard and upholstery for a long time. Turn on the AC and adjust the thermostat instead.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company