Updated 23 August 2019

Why do you cough after exercise?

Plagued by a nagging cough after an invigorating workout? There are several reasons why this may happen.

You’ve been for a run or a gym session, only to find that you are coughing, even though you don’t have a cold or flu.

Your breathing was just fine during your workout, but now you're having a coughing fit. What could this be?

Coughing occurs when your lungs are trying to expel irritants in the airways and can be triggered by allergens such as pollen or dust if you're prone to seasonal allergies. Sometimes poor air quality can also affect your airways and lead to coughing.

You could also be suffering from a condition known as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB). This used to be known as exercise-induced asthma. What happens is that the airways become constricted as a result of physical activity. People who already have asthma are more likely to suffer from EIB.

EIB is caused by the loss of heat or water from the airways when we are rapidly breathing in dry air. Symptoms usually occur ten to fifteen minutes into a workout or directly after a workout, and include:

  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • A sore throat

What triggers EIB?

There are many factors that can trigger EIB, whether you exercise indoors or outdoors. These include:

  • Air pollution
  • Dust
  • Allergens such as pollen
  • Abnormally cold and dry or humid air
  • Chlorine in swimming pools
  • Paints, cleaning agents or carpets inside your gym

It’s not always EIB

It's not always EIB that causes coughing, as there are people who cough without the tell-tale wheezing and shortness of breath. According to research by the University of Iowa, it’s possible that vigorous physical exercise can trigger slight respiratory irritation without any narrowing of the airways.

When you exercise, you breathe faster and often through your mouth, which doesn’t filter and lubricate the air from outside, and which happens when you breathe through your nose. When you breathe at a normal rate, the air is moistened and warmed before entering the lungs.

Suddenly, however, as you increase your workout speed, you start breathing faster and most likely through your mouth. You may also be exposed to irritating debris in the air that can cause a cough. This is not serious, though, and will stop soon after you finish your workout, according to the research.

Minimise coughing after exercise

Training through winter for your next race or simply maintaining your workout routine? Here’s how to combat the cough.

  • Wear a buff over your mouth and nose when going for a run in cold air.
  • Make an effort to breathe through your nose while exercising.
  • Warm up before a vigorous workout so that you can slowly increase your breathing rate.
  • Try to avoid possible triggers such as changing your route.
  • Bring your own yoga mat to the gym.
  • See your doctor or an allergist for a proper treatment plan if your coughing is extreme.
  • Shower immediately after exercising to remove allergens or chlorine from your body.

 Image credit: iStock


Ask the Expert

Cough Expert

Professor Keertan Dheda has received several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others. Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute.

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