Coughing After Exercise: What It Really Means

WI’ve all been there. You head out for a run on a crisp, cold winter morning, ready to hit the trail and get a great workout in, only to end that glorious run with a cough.

What’s with this sudden cough that you can’t seem to stop? It’s very common, especially this time of year, says Roy Artal, a board-certified pulmonologist based in Los Angeles.

In the past, Dr. Artal explained, this phenomenon was referred to as exercise-induced asthma. Today, this is often explained as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction. “It’s essentially hyperreactivity of the airways where the airways tighten or constrict during exercise, and people can then experience tightness in their breathing or reduced lung capacity that can often manifest with coughing,” he says.

Although we can assume that cold air is the main contributor, a study by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology found that dry air is a factor far greater than temperature. “Cold air generally contains less moisture than warm air, and rapidly breathing dry air dehydrates the bronchial tubes, thereby narrowing them and restricting airflow,” the study found.

This sensation often occurs in dry climates, but other triggers can be things like pollutants in the air, strong perfumes in an indoor environment, or even the dry air of a hot yoga studio like a sauna. Dr. Artal says that many people typically experience it in the winter when working out, jogging or doing strenuous hikes. “Cold, dry air is especially a trigger,” he says. “Many people may not have symptoms while running in the summer in Jackson, Mississippi, but will have symptoms in the winter in Jackson, Wyoming. And for these people, the remedy may be as simple as switching your workouts indoors during the winter months.”

For more persistent problems with a post-workout cough, medications and treatments are available, Dr. Artal says. So if you have regular symptoms that get in the way of your favorite activities, it’s definitely worth seeing a doctor, he says. Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction won’t stop you from pushing yourself as hard as you want. “We should all do what we want to do with exercise and the activities we want to do, whether it’s summer or winter,” he says. “If you can’t meet that litmus test, talk to you doctor.”

But overall, there’s little cough and nothing to worry about, says Dr. Artal. And if moving that exercise routine from the trail to the treadmill sounds like a seasonal buzzkill, Dr. Artal offers a few helpful tips to stave off mild symptoms: “Something as simple as warming up for a few minutes before a run can help you avoid skipping a workout. or running cold,” he says. “Also, wearing a face covering like a balaclava can be helpful to combat dry air—it will trap some moisture in your respiratory tract.”

There’s no reason a few coughs should stop you from getting out there.

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