While experiencing tightness in the throat during exercise can be alarming, it's often a normal side effect of an intense workout. However, it could be caused by a medical condition, such as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, or exercise-induced asthma.
If your throat feels tight after working out on more than one occasion, consider talking to your doctor. Whether it's a by-product of your current fitness level, psychological stress or an underlying medical condition, this symptom is manageable. The key is to determine its underlying cause and address it in a timely manner.
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Read more: Tightness in the Chest After Exercise
If you're having difficulty breathing or your throat tightness is accompanied by chest pain or pressure, dizziness, weakness or a cold sweat, seek immediate medical attention. These symptoms may indicate a life-threatening emergency.
Tightness in Throat During Exercise
As you exercise, your muscles need more oxygen to keep going. Breathing rate increases to bring more oxygen into the lungs, which may cause throat tightness on exertion. Oxygen is transferred to the bloodstream in the lungs and travels to the heart. Your heart begins to contract faster and harder to deliver oxygen to your hard-working muscles.
In fact, according to a November 2014 article published in Physiology, 85 to 95 percent of your blood goes to the skeletal and cardiac muscles during exercise.
Working out harder than you're used to, whether from lack of activity or increased intensity, may cause tightness or throat pain during exercise. This condition is called exercise-induced dyspnoea, or exercise-induced shortness of breath.
According to a June 2016 article published by Breathe, reporting this sensation to a healthcare provider can lead to a misdiagnosis of asthma (unless proper testing is performed) — when the actual cause is a person's current level of fitness. Throat tightness that occurs when you begin a new workout program should resolve as your body becomes more accustomed to physical activity.
Other Potential Causes
Feeling tightness or a lump in your throat when exercising can also occur from breathing improperly — "pattern disordered breathing," or PDB. Rapid, shallow breathing, rather than breathing deeply using the diaphragm, can negatively impact the amount of oxygen delivered to your muscles during exercise.
While PDB can be triggered by the body's physiological response to exercise, it can also be caused by psychological stress or anxiety occurring during physical activity. According to Breathe, this often affects self-driven individuals or "type A" athletes. You might also have increased stress from exercise during an important race or competitive event.
According to an October 2017 article published by Research & Investigations in Sports Medicine, exercise-induced anxiety may cause hyperventilation, which can produce the sensation of being choked or gasping for air. Other physiological symptoms of exercise-induced anxiety can include rapid heartbeat, muscle tremors, gastrointestinal upset, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, dry mouth and difficulty swallowing.
Prolonged anxiety can also result in elevated blood pressure, loss of hair and skin issues, such as acne and eczema. You might even notice difficulty concentrating or making decisions, racing thoughts, inability to retain new information, forgetfulness, confusion and irritability.
Exercise-induced anxiety can be successfully treated with medications, psychotherapy and other techniques, including relaxation, hypnotherapy and positive thinking.
Consider Exercise-Induced Asthma
If your throat feels tight after working out or during exercise on a regular basis, you might have exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), sometimes called exercise-induced asthma. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), its symptoms include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath.
While most symptoms kick in while you're exercising, they typically worsen five to 10 minutes after working out and last for 20 to 30 minutes. These issues vary from mild to severe.
EIB can be triggered by illness or environmental factors, including pollen, pollutants, smoke and strong fumes. This condition is also more frequent when exercising in cold, dry environments. Steady-state prolonged activities, such as long-distance running, are also associated with a greater risk.
Treatment for EIB can be as simple as avoiding the conditions that trigger it. Choose exercises or sports involving short bursts of activity. Reduce the intensity of your workouts. Go to the gym rather than jogging outdoors when the pollen count is high.
In some cases, medication might be needed to help manage EIB. Using an inhaler (a short-acting beta-agonist) 10 to 15 minutes before training can help prevent symptoms for up to four hours, according to the AAFA. This type of inhaler can also be used during exercise to treat any symptoms that occur while working out.
Long-acting inhaled medications can also help treat EIB. These drugs should be taken 30 to 60 minutes before exercise. Their effects last for 12 hours. However, they are not appropriate for immediate relief of symptoms occurring during a workout. A group of medications called mast cell stabilizers may also be used to help prevent throat tightness on exertion and other symptoms caused by seasonal or chronic allergies.
Read more: The Effects of Exercise on Lung Capacity
When to Seek Emergency Care
Tightness in your throat during exercise can sometimes indicate a potentially life-threatening condition. EIB triggered by allergens can lead to anaphylaxis — a serious allergic reaction. As the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology notes, symptoms of anaphylaxis include a swollen throat, wheezing, chest tightness, difficulty breathing, coughing, passing out, hoarseness and trouble swallowing.
Anaphylaxis can also cause symptoms outside of the respiratory system, including vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea, changes in skin color and a feeling of impending doom. Treatment includes immediate injection of epinephrine.
If you're aware of your allergies, it's a good idea to have an EpiPen with you whenever you exercise. Follow up with emergent medical care.
Throat tightness, pressure or pain can also be a sign of heart attack, warns the Mayo Clinic. The same goes for tightness, pressure, pain, squeezing or aching in your chest, arms, jaw, neck or back. Heart attacks can also cause nausea, abdominal pain, indigestion, heartburn, fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath and a cold sweat.
Chest pain or pressure during exercise can be an early warning sign of heart attacks, as blood flow to the heart is temporarily reduced. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience these symptoms.
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: "Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction (Asthma)"
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: "Anaphylaxis"
- Physiology: "Organ-Specific Physiological Responses to Acute Physical Exercise and Long-Term Training in Humans"
- Breathe: "Dysfunctional Breathing and Reaching One’s Physiological Limit as Causes of Exercise-Induced Dyspnoea"
- Mayo Clinic: "Heart Attack - Symptoms and Causes"
- Research & Investigations in Sports Medicine: "Effects of Anxiety on Athletic Performance"