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Asthma is a chronic disease in which there are episodes of shortness of breath which may be brought on or made worse by certain trigger factors.Asthma may be controlled with proper treatment but cannot be cured. It is due to narrowing of the small airways within the lungs as a result of inflammation and muscle spasm.

What happens during an asthma attack?

There is a special type of inflammation which narrows the small airways and makes them "twitch" and very sensitive to any environmental change. The airways also become blocked with sticky mucus and this blockage can come on very suddenly. During an attack, breathing becomes harder, even at rest. There may be a cough or wheezing, which is a musical noise when you breathe.

Who does it affect?

It affects as many as 10-15% of children and 5-8% of adults.

What is Scuba?

Scuba means Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Scuba was developed by Jacques Costeau. Scuba diving has become a great outdoor adventure-based recreational activity for underwater exploration. Scuba diving is now available for individuals with numerous disabilities and conditions including asthma.

What are the benefits of scuba diving for people with asthma?

Swimming and aquatic exercises are known for their positive effects on respiration for individuals with and without asthma. Swimming results in less severe bronchial constrictions than other active leisure activities, in part because of the constant pressure of the water on the lungs.

Although there is no evidence to support the exact cause, the benefits of aquatic exercise for individuals with asthma are believed to be a result of the high humidity of air breathed in at water level, which in turn reduces respiratory heat loss and possible absorption of airway mucus. Swimming and its related activities, like scuba diving and snorkeling, have been shown to be excellent exercise for children with asthma. However, possible side effects may occur especially in cold water; these include irritation to the airways of individuals with asthma.

What are the safety concerns of scuba diving?

Scuba diving may be risky for people with asthma. Breathing in the cool dry air from the diving gas may be an irritant to the asthmatic airways. Also, swimming against a current can produce exercise induced asthma.

The prospective diver with asthma should consult with a physician experienced in hyperbaric medicine, use caution when diving, and be conservative.

The Divers Alert Network suggests diving should no longer be contraindicated for individuals with asthma.  In fact, surveys have shown that 4-7% of active divers in the US have asthma.

Snorkel Diving & Asthma

Snorkel diving is far less risky for people with asthma, as well as the general population,  than scuba diving.  Primarily, this is due to the fact that the diver is not in water as deep and so the diver doesn't experience the problems associated with deep water diving.

This content was created by Beatrice Darden,
a doctoral student in Adapted Physical Education,
Texas Woman's University, Summer, 2001.
Edited by Gary Christopher, MS, ATC, July 2004

page last updated 1/3/2017 1:00 PM