Background Inflammatory cells are increased in the airways of endurance athletes, but their role in causing exercise-induced respiratory symptoms and bronchoconstriction, or their possible long-term consequences, are uncertain.
Aim To put the results of athlete studies in perspective, by analysing the pathogenesis of airway cell changes and their impact on respiratory function.
Results Athletes of different endurance sports at rest showed increased airway neutrophils. Elite swimmers and skiers also showed large increases in airway eosinophils and lymphocytes, possibly related to chronic, exercise-related exposure to irritants or cold and dry air, respectively. Post-exercise studies reported variable responses of airway cells to exercise, but found no evidence of inflammatory cell activation in the airways, at variance with exercise-induced neutrophil activation in peripheral blood. The increase in airway inflammatory cells in athletes can result from hyperventilation-induced increase in airway osmolarity stimulating bronchial epithelial cells to release chemotactic factors. Hyperosmolarity may also inhibit activation of inflammatory cells by causing shedding of adhesion molecules, possibly explaining why airway inflammation appears ‘frustrated’ in athletes. Data on exhaled nitric oxide are few and variable, not allowing conclusions about its usefulness as a marker of airway inflammation in athletes, or its role in modulating bronchial responsiveness.
Conclusions The acute and long-term effects of exercise on airway cells need further study. Airway inflammatory cells are increased but not activated in athletes, both at rest and after exercise, and airway inflammation appears to regress in athletes quitting competitions. Altogether, these findings do not clearly indicate that habitual intense exercise may be detrimental for respiratory health. Rather, airway changes may represent chronic adaptive responses to exercise hyperventilation. An improved understanding of the effects of exercise on the airways will likely have a clinical impact on sports medicine, and on the current approach to exercise-based rehabilitation in respiratory disease.