A new study reveals that nearly 3 in 10 elite footballers, screened from top clubs across England, have exercise induced asthma (EIA.) The condition was previously undiagnosed and could have impaired their on-field performance.

Researchers presenting at the British Thoracic Society’s Winter Meeting in London today (Friday 8th December 2017) will call for all top clubs to implement a lung health screening programme, helping identify those with airway problems and treat them appropriately.

The study, the first of its kind in scope and scale, was jointly conducted by the University of Kent and the Royal Brompton Hospital, London, and assessed the airway health and impact of treatment in 97 elite male footballers undergoing pre-season fitness and medical screening.      

27 players (28% of the sample) demonstrated airway problems by giving a positive result in a breathing challenge 1 which tested for exercise induced asthma. Of these, 10 (37%) reported no previous history of asthma or airway problems.

These players were then treated with medication to help reduce any inflammation and narrowing of the airways to increase airflow through the lungs and a follow up assessment demonstrated reduced airway inflammation and improved lung function on testing.

In a small number of players who also completed exercise tests, those treated for previously undetected asthma also showed a greater increase in their maximum exercise capacity than the rest of the sample.     

The researchers believe that clubs need to move beyond looking ad-hoc at possible symptoms, as sometimes these may not always be obvious, or even ‘written off’ as poor fitness or short term ‘coughs and colds’, to implement a more rigorous lung health screening programme pre-season using core medical tests.  

High rates of EIA are consistently reported in elite endurance athletes – but this is the largest study to find this in elite level footballers.

The reason why this condition occurs is not fully understood and needs further study but EIA appears to be more common in athletes exercising regularly at high levels of breathing. Environments such as cold (sometimes damp) air, air pollution & grass pollen etc. may also contribute to EIA development in this population.          

Anna Jackson from the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Kent said;

‘Footballers who are very short of breath or who cough a lot after training, may be deemed as not being ‘fit enough’, when in fact they may have problems with their airways that need to be treated. 

Our study has shown a high level of airway problems which had not been formally diagnosed before – because you can’t always predict them from symptoms alone, and players may not report symptoms, believing them to be a normal response to working hard.  

The good news is that when these breathing problems are identified, they can be treated helping both the lung function and physical performance of players.

Footballers are rightly screened for potential heart problems using rigorous medical tests – and we feel that this should also be the case for lung and breathing issues. This may increase player performance and help to prevent any more serious problems further down the line.’  

Dr Lisa Davies, consultant respiratory physician, and Chair of the British Thoracic Society’s Board of Trustees said: 

“Our lungs are pivotal to exercise, well-being and life in general. And in key sports, where the lungs are worked hard and are prone to repeat exposure to different and challenging internal and external conditions - it really makes sense to have lung health screening, so if there are any airway problems they can be treated.”    


For more information prior to the British Thoracic Society Winter Meeting (that is, before Wednesday 6thDecember 2017), please contact:

Rosie Strachan: t: 020 7831 8778 or 07566 223644

Charlotte Sutton: t: 07958 279240

Ed Gyde t: 020 7831 8778 or 07809 574801            

During the British Thoracic Society meeting (from Wednesday 6th to Friday 8th December 2017):

Please contact the BTS news media office on t: 020 7798 4801/ 020 7798 4541 or the mobile numbers above.

Note to Editors:
The British Thoracic Society is the UK’s professional body of respiratory specialists. The Society seeks to improve standards of care for people who have respiratory diseases and to support and develop those who provide that care.  A registered charity, it has over 3,400 members including doctors, nurses, respiratory physiotherapists, scientists and other professionals with a respiratory interest. For more information, go to www.brit-thoracic.org.uk


The British Thoracic Society Winter Meeting takes place from Wednesday 6th to Friday 8th December 2017 at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster, London.