DWTS’s Charlie White Doesn’t Let Asthma Slow Him Down

Charlie White always makes his performances look effortless- whether it’s performing an Olympic Gold Medal ice dancing routine or doing the “perfect” quick-step as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars.

But in a recent interview with People magazine, White explains that he has dealt with asthma since childhood, and that excelling in sports (and dancing) with this condition has often been a “really difficult battle.”

“I’ve always had to train harder than others to get the oxygen to my muscles because of my lung capacity. I have to push myself past the point of being comfortable.”

Both cold temperature and exercise can be triggers for many patients with asthma. Inhalers can relieve the breathing difficulty, but can cause jitteriness as well- not a good thing for a figure skater who needs to control of his movements. Charlie says he is fortunate that his doctor “was able to find the correct medication for me to help me stay relaxed and calm, but at the same time be able to perform at my peak.”

Having asthma as an Olympic athlete puts additional requirements on the athlete. To be able to use their medications, they must first prove they have asthma. Then they must have the medication levels in their blood closely monitored.

As it turns out, asthma is the most common chronic medical condition in Olympic athletes, with an incidence of about 1 in 12 athletes.

At one point people believed that athletes with asthma had an “asthmatic advantage,” because of a performance enhancing effect of their medications. Subsequently, research has debunked this notion.

Researchers have proven the importance of a thorough warm up for athletes with asthma. A University of British Columbia study showed that asthma attacks produce a “refractory period” during which the airways become immune from a further attack. A warm-up that is sufficient to sensitize the airways may allow an athlete to compete without further worsening of his (or her) symptoms.

Another article in The British Journal of Medicine showed “regular, moderate exercise can improve your asthma and also your immune system, which can also help avoid asthma attacks.” This is contrary to the old notion that those with asthma should avoid exercise.

Asthma is a chronic disease of the lungs which affects 22 million Americans.

Asthma causes recurrent episodes of wheezing (a whistling sound with breathing), chest tightness, shortness of breath and coughing. The coughing often occurs at night or early in the morning.

People who have asthma have inflamed airways. This makes the airways swollen and very sensitive. They tend to react strongly to certain inhaled substances.

When the airways react, the muscles around them tighten. This narrows the airways, causing less air to flow into the lungs. The swelling also can worsen, making the airways even narrower. Cells in the airways may make more mucus than normal. This sticky, thick liquid narrows the airways even more.

This chain reaction can result in asthma symptoms. Symptoms can happen any time the airways are inflamed.

Figure A shows the location of the lungs and airways in the body. Figure B shows a cross-section of a normal airway. Figure C shows a cross-section of an airway during asthma symptoms. (Source: NHLBI)

What triggers asthma?

There are many triggers for asthma, the most common of which include:

  • Upper respiratory infections like colds and flu
  • Exposure to allergens, such as dust, animal dander, mold
  • Exercise
  • Stress and strong emotions
  • Inhalation of irritating substances such as smoke, aerosols. air pollution
  • Cold temperatures
  • Gastroesophageal reflux (a condition where stomach acids back up into the esophagus)

 What is the prognosis for asthma?

Asthma is a long-term disease for which there is no cure. The goal of asthma treatment is to control the disease. Good asthma control will:

  • Prevent chronic and troublesome symptoms, such as coughing and shortness of breath
  • Reduce the need for quick-relief medicines (see our story about asthma medications by clicking here.)
  • Help  maintain good lung function
  • Let patients maintain a normal activity level and sleep through the night
  • Prevent asthma attacks that could result in an emergency room visit or hospital stay

For more information about asthma, click here to go to the Resounding Health Casebook on the topic.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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