Asthma, allergy and the olympics: A 12-year survey in elite athletes

Matteo Bonini, Antonio Pelliccia, Claudia Gramiccioni, Daniela Fioretti, Beate Ruckert, Monica Rinaldi, Cezmi Akdis, Antonio Todaro, Paolo Palange, Kai-Hakon Carlsen, Guido Rasi, Sergio Bonini, Aida

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44 Citations (Scopus)


Objective There are no comprehensive surveys relating the reported high prevalence of asthma and allergic diseases in athletes to comorbidities and immune changes associated with intense chronic exercise. This 12-year survey aims to evaluate several clinical, functional and immunological parameters in order to assess features, trend and burden of asthma, allergy, infections and autoimmune diseases, in a large homogeneous population of Olympic athletes. Methods Six hundred and fifty-nine Italian Olympic athletes were studied through four cross-sectional surveys performed between 2000 and 2012 before the Summer and Winter Olympics. Clinical diagnosis of allergic, autoimmune and infectious diseases was complemented by: skin-prick tests (n=569); pulmonary function tests (n=415); total (n=158) and specific (n=72) serum IgE; serum autoantibodies (n=30), cytokines and growth factors (n=92); flow cytometry (n=135). Results The prevalence of asthma and/or exercise-induced bronchoconstriction was 14.7%, with a significant increase (P=0.04) from 2000 (11.3%) to 2008 (17.2%). The prevalence of rhinitis, conjunctivitis, skin allergic diseases and anaphylaxis was 26.2%, 20.0%, 14.8% and 1.1%, respectively. Sensitization to inhalant allergens was documented in 49.0% of athletes, being 32.7% in 2000 and 56.5% in 2008 (P<0.0001). Food, drug and venom allergy was present in 7.1%, 5.0% and 2.1% of athletes, respectively. The high prevalence of asthma and allergy was associated with recurrent upper respiratory tract (10.3%) and herpes (18.2%) infections, an abnormal T cell subset profile and a general down-regulation of serum cytokines with a significantly lower IFN-γ/IL-4 ratio. Conclusion A chronic and intense physical exercise may cause a transient immunodepression with a preferential shift to a Th2 response, associated with abnormalities of the respiratory tract.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)184-192
Number of pages9
JournalCurrent Opinion in Allergy and Clinical Immunology
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Asthma
  • Athletes
  • Autoimmune Diseases
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Herpes Simplex
  • Humans
  • Immunology
  • Immunology and Allergy
  • Interferon-gamma
  • Interleukin-4
  • Male
  • Prevalence
  • Sports
  • Th2 Cells
  • allergy
  • asthma
  • athlete
  • exercise
  • infection


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