MONDAY, Feb. 9, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Heart attacks are not the only health danger lurking around athletic fields across the United States: Young, seemingly fit kids can suddenly drop dead from asthma attacks while playing the sport they love, a new study finds.
Asthma was the main cause of death in 61 of 263 potential asthma-related deaths during sporting events between July 1993 and December 2000, researchers in Philadelphia found. Their report appears in the February issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
Until now, few studies have considered the possibility that athletic activity could actually trigger a fatal asthma attack.
"Asthma has been a disease that hasn't been appreciated in the athlete yet," says the lead author, Dr. Jack M. Becker, chief of allergy and asthma at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.
"Cardiac deaths get a lot more press, which is why now schools have defibrillators around," he says. "If a child comes off the field because he's having an asthma attack, there isn't a reporter to cover that."
Yet many more kids are likely to have asthma than a cardiac problem. An estimated 6.3 million children under 18 have asthma, and 4 million of them had an asthma attack or episode in the past year, according to the American Lung Association.
The good news is the condition can be managed, experts say. While running can trigger an episode in many children with asthma, bronchodilator medications used before exercise can prevent most of these episodes.
Becker and his colleagues used newspaper clippings to identify possible sports-related asthma deaths, requested relevant autopsy records and talked to family members when possible.
In all, white males between the ages of 10 and 20 were most at risk of dying from asthma during sports. Deaths of white athletes outnumbered blacks by almost two-to-one. The number of male athletes who died was more than double the number of women suffering a fatal asthma attack.
Athletes who played for either a professional or school team were at slightly higher risk of sudden death from asthma. They accounted for 57 percent of the total confirmed deaths. The rest (43 percent) were people who competed recreationally. Fifty-one percent of the victims died in the middle of playing their sport, the study found. And basketball and track accounted for more asthma deaths than any other sport.
The authors don't try to explain why sudden fatal asthma attacks occurred more often in white males. Nor is it clear whether the 61 deaths involved athletes who failed to receive appropriate care or who suffered severe exacerbations of their asthma that may not have been avoidable.
But they do suggest that doctors, coaches, trainers and parents make sure athletes with asthma are getting the right treatment.
Dr. Brian Smart, a spokesman for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, echoes that suggestion.
"It is likely that the vast majority of those fatalities were preventable," had asthma symptoms been recognized and there had been an appropriate plan for managing the athlete's care, he says.
But Becker cautions against sidelining asthmatic kids.
"We're not saying kids shouldn't exercise. Exercise does far more good than harm. All we're saying is if a child has asthma, you've got to be smart," he says.
For tips on how to avoid exercise-induced asthma attacks, see American Academy of Allergy. Asthma and Immunology. And read this surprising report about how many athletes in the 1996 Summer Olympics had asthma.