Diving with Asthma

Diving with Asthma

Most people probably think that asthma is a definite contraindication for diving. Divers with perfectly healthy lungs often struggle with underwater breathing; why would an asthmatic even dream of trying it?

Note: Before going diving with asthma you shall always get consent form a Licensed Physician, preferably who specializes in asthma or diving. 

It has been said a million times and it remains true in this instance; nothing is impossible. Yes, asthmatics are at a higher risk of accident or injury while diving, but they are not completely incapable.

Just like with all divers, the individual health of the person must be taken into consideration before determining whether scuba diving is a safe option. For the most part, those in good physical shape who struggle only with asthma can learn to dive safely.

Here are a few things to be aware of when diving with asthma as well as the necessary steps taken to determine whether diving is right for you.

Why is Diving with Asthma Dangerous?

Before diving with asthma, you should always see a Licensed Physician - Neeila

To fully understand the situation at hand, you must first understand why asthma causes such serious complications when diving.

Asthma causes the airway to become constricted in response to certain situations or stimuli. Extreme stress and anxiety are major causes of asthma attacks. Essentially the person’s airways constrict to such a point that breathing is nearly impossible as air is unable to move throughout the lungs. The person has to work extremely hard to be able to inhale and exhale.

Now consider the circumstances you are in while diving. Divers breathe compressed air, which has a much denser surface and takes more effort to breathe. Once you reach depth, the effort it takes to breathe can be compared to sucking honey through a straw.

Combine the increased resistance with an asthmatic’s already constricted lungs and you have a potential recipe for disaster. The risk is heightened by the fact that diving has a certain amount of adrenaline and fear that goes along with it; these cause the heart to beat faster and breathing to become heavier.

Now combine an asthmatic’s constricted airway, an atmosphere that makes breathing a major effort, and hyperventilation from excitement and fear. The results for an unprepared diver could be catastrophic.

Assessing Diving Eligibility

Diving for anyone, not just asthmatics, all comes down to education and preparation. If you are completely prepared and confident, there is no reason why asthma should keep you from a scuba diving life; or at least giving it a try.

With the proper physical health, training, and preparation, asthmatics absolutely can still dive. They just need to be sure that they are familiar with the potential risks and that they dive with a very experienced diver who can help if the need should arise.

Here are a few of the major considerations taken when determining whether an asthmatic is fit to dive:

  • Major Triggers- if the person in question has asthma that is triggered mostly by allergens and other physical things, these do not contraindicate diving. Allergen-triggered asthma is absolutely not a risk while diving since there is no contact with them.
  • If the asthma is triggered by physical activity, it is recommended that you do not dive since it requires a great amount of physical exertion.
  • Lung Function- Doctors will use several methods of testing your lung capacity. Some of these tests include; Spirometry, Peak Flow Test, and exercise tests.

Once your doctor has done a full evaluation, he or she will inform you as to whether they believe you are fit for diving.

So What’s the Verdict?

Diving comes with a list of possible risks and dangers for anyone and that list is multiplied for those with asthma.

The decision of whether to dive or not is a personal one that should be made between you and your doctor. In general, if your health aside from the asthma is good overall and stress is not a major trigger for you, diving can be something that you enjoy time and time again.

Always go to a licensed diving doctor if in doubt.

About The Author

Torben Lonne

Torben is a top skilled PADI MSDT instructor. He has worked several years with scuba diving in Indonesia and Thailand - and dived most of his life in most of the world.He is also the co-founder and chief-editor of DIVE.in you can always catch him here [email protected]

22 Comments

  1. Edna

    I got a little bit of asthma, but I’m usually not bothered by it in the every day life.

    I was thinking that if I only go down like 25 feet or so and have a buddy that knows I have asthma, then I should always have the safe option to go up quickly? Or am I missing something?

    Reply
    • Torben

      Hi Edna,

      I would definitely not recommend you doing this. First of all, if you go too fast up you’ll risk decompression sickness. This if of cause not worse than having asthma attack underwater but it is a very serious illness that can have very strong aftereffects or even death. I would suggest you too see a doctor before attempting to go diving!

  2. Gadget

    Diving is potentialy dangerous even to a completely healthy person, however if your condition is controlled and minor and your doctor agrees, keep in mind that you do not have to be an “extreme” diver as most divers would agree that a dive to only 12 feet can be as exciting and even more interesting than 100 feet for example much more natural light wich makes all the colorful fish and reefs show their beauty where you lose colors the deeper you go, and the stresses on your body & mind are much less extreme…but your doctor must make the decision and always remember diving is potentially dangerous to anyone…also you can consider snorkeling but again check with your doctor.
    Cheers

    Reply
  3. Jackie

    I have asthma & I dive, no limit on depth. I dive in cold water usually with bad vis, never easy diving. I’ve had asthma my whole life & it is under control with medication. It is not stress or exercise induced. As long as I’m healthy, I dive, any doubt I check with doctor before diving. I have learned to calm myself of anxiety both above & below the water. I just started a year ago & I love it, I’m so grateful to have this door open to me.

    Reply
  4. Gadget

    I am not a doctor, but I think that with doctors approval diving could be helpful in terms of weightless excersise, But I would give warning to anyone on any type of medications for any illnesses to be very cautious if diving nitrox, the risks are not known how they can have disastrous consequences under increased partial pressures and can cause instantaneous seizures and death…To note, I too have .more than 1 medical issue and take more than 1 meication, I dive nitrox to 140 feet while doing wreck penetration, I made the decision to not let illness & injuries make me a victim to my problems but to enjoy life, BUT this was MY decision and I would not tell anyone to take the risk…better safe than sorry.
    Cheers

    Reply
    • Torben Lonne

      Thanks for sharing.
      I’ve never heard about any risk, other that oxygen toxicity, when diving with nitrox. But of cause it’s still fairly new and issues still be unknown. And yes as you say, always see a physician before diving.

  5. Jared Day

    I have had asthma my whole life, I stopped smoking years ago and my asthma improved to a point where I no longer require medication. My asthma used to be triggered by allergies and activity, probably smoking induced tho. I dive with no depth limits and just completed Rescue Diver. Diving has encouraged me to better my fitness leveland my asthma has all but disappered. I still carry a Ventalin inhaler just in case.

    Reply
    • Torben Lonne

      Thank you for sharing. May I ask – How often do you use your inhaler? And what would you do if you had an attack underwater? I’ve always told my students they need to be approved my their doctor, so I guess if he says okay, then your good to go!

  6. Gadget

    Hi Again,
    Oxygen Toxicity is really what I was referring to, It is suspected that certain substances (medications) can make a person more likely to succumb to “OX TOX”, the one in the study refers to psuedophed often taken to keep nasal/ear passages open when having trouble equalizing especially by persons with sinus issues, however it also mentions that little is known and it’s believed other meds may also present risk. As always, Doctor Knows Best, in this case it should be a doctor with dive knowledge such as those at “DAN” (Diver Alert Network”.
    Cheers

    Reply
    • Torben Lonne

      Hi Again Gadget,

      Okay that is really interesting! I did not know the medication was able to tricker such things. But well of caus there are side affects, and reactions in the body with the use of medication.
      And when it’s a still unknown subject, better stay on the safe side and avoid Nitrox.
      Thanks for sharing again!

  7. Jared Day

    Hi, I don’t use an inhaler at all anymore, I havnt for a few years. All the asthma attacks I have ever had have been managable to a point, they didnt subside without medication tho. They have all been triggered by coughing or panting or inhaling pollens etc so there has been warning signs leading up to the attack. I certainly sort prior approval from my doctor before starting diving training and passed a number of tests. If for some unforseen reason an asthma attack occured under water I believe my training and experiences would allow me to end the dive immediatly and make a safe accent to the surface where I can take medication immediatly from my inhaler.

    Reply
  8. Lydia

    I have asthma. I use a Flovent inhaler once a day and an Albuterol when necessary. High levels of physical activity only trigger my asthma. Would it be safe to dive?

    Reply
    • Torben Lonne

      Well you need to see a doctor to get approved for diving if you have asthma, and if your asthma is triggered by physical activity then it will be very hard to dive. It’s still not possible to bring an inhaler on the dive. Still I can only recommend you to see a doctor, and if possible, a doctor who is specialized in diving medicine.

  9. Phil

    Great article and I’m pleased to see the topic/issue of asthma and scuba diving raised, as well as the above comments, so thankyou!

    A couple of points I’d like to mention…..

    Likening the sensation of breathing at depth to ‘sucking honey through a straw’ sounds a little bit drastic to me, and to any potential diver-to-be reading this article could be enough in itself to put anyone off the idea! (unless an individual is really over-exerting themselves which, to my understanding, they shouldn’t really be doing when diving anyway, unless adverse conditions dictate otherwise!) or fitness could be the stumbling block?

    I’m coming from the perspective of a person who has had mild asthma for decades, has been smoking for longer than i care to remember, but also tries to maintain a decent level of overall fitness.

    I’d also suffered from what I’d consider as harsh anxiety attacks for several years in my childhood. Both the panic/anxiety and asthma being conditions which could quite rightly be considered ‘anti’ for scubadiving.

    Hence, I thought it best to voice my viewpoint…

    I would wholeheartedly agree and strongly suggest that the first point of call should always be a consultation with a local G.P who will be in the best position to gauge a person’s suitability for diving.

    I’ve had the pleasure of completing over 100+ dives in the past 5-6 years and haven’t looked back. For my own peace of mind, and the safety of my dive buddy(ies), to avoid any doubt I prefer to get a health check from my G.P every couple of years to ensure he deems me to be healthy enough to continue diving.

    One final point! I always carry an inhaler with me on the boat and often have a blast on it just before I dive as a precautionary measure. One statement that rings true from theory is ‘know your own limits’. Often you will only know them by making an effort in appropriate conditions for your experience & mindset.

    Having a Dive Buddy and experienced Divemaster/Instructor who knows your personal background and individual issue(s) will give you greater confidence to go out and enjoy the many things that Scuba Diving and the wonderful underwater world has to offer.

    Reply
  10. Torben Lonne

    Hi Phil

    Thanks for your views and thoughts. I agree it’s possible to dive with asthma, if a Licensed Physician agrees. I just added that note in the beginning of the article as well.

    Though I would be afraid that the inhaler medicine could run out while diving, and would never suggest a diver who’s active using medicine to go diving. Still it’s a personal choice, and if it’s after consulting a physician then I don’t see a problem.

    Best regards
    Torben

    Reply
  11. Phil

    Hi Torben,

    Thanks very much for your response & feedback. I respect your point that it could be rather problematic should the effects of salbutamol (in my case) fade away whilst diving, but I figure if someone became ‘wheezy’ during a dive even after taking a preventative/precautionary dose of an inhaler, then i think its fair to say that diving probably isn’t a suitable pastime for the individual.

    I’m no doctor and my viewpoint is purely subjective and based on my own experiences; I reckon that in the initial phases of confined water experience and a good few open water dives, a person would get a good idea as to whether they would be asking for trouble by continuing to dive.

    Reply
  12. Kim

    I’m a Dive Instructor with asthma, which has been controlled for over 20 years with exercise & medication. I see my asthma physician every 6 months to be check and given approval to dive.

    Diving & asthma is not by any means to be taken lightly. Anyone who has asthma and wants to dive, need to have their physician approval and the proper testing completed.

    Reply
  13. Zibri

    Today I had my first bad experience (but experience) in diving: after and openwater and and advanced PADI course and a few more dives, today it was my first time with nitrox. Until today I had no problems of any kind diving up to 45 meters on air. But today the unthinkable happened: we went down (to reach 30 meters where one of the most beautiful wrecks in the world is) but at 8 meters it was like someone closed my tank. I “felt” no air coming (and exactly when I needed to breath in). I almost panicked, but I kept my cool and went up. At the moment I didn’t understand what was going on, so I relaxed 6 minutes on the surface then I used the octopus spare regulator and went down again…8 meters…no problem…9…10…12…13…14…NO AIR AGAIN! Damn! This time I inflated a littlle the BCD (fearing I could not make it and faint or anything) and went up at a midl speed (not as a ballon but not slow as usual). I ended the dive, checked everything. The only interesting data is that the “problem” arised in both attempt exactly after one minute. I will make some further tests on nitrox but on land or not deeper than 3 meters, just to understand if it was just a bad day, or is nitrox that for some (yet to be discovered) reason works bad for me. I wanted to share this with you. Sorry for raining a little on this parade.

    Reply
    • Zibri

      By the way… there is also a slight chance it was not the Nitrox but a problem on the first stage…
      I will investigate further.

  14. Phil

    Sounds like a very unnerving situation but more of an equipment fault/issue like your tank wasn’t fully open on each occassion – being that you used both regulators and had the same problem??? ( I’m no equipment technician expert or Padi Pro). This might be a daft question but when you did your pre-dive safety checks did you happen to check whether or not the needle on your SPG was moving as you breathed in and out of your reg on each check?

    Perhaps your connection between the difficulty you experienced in obtaining air through the regs on each occassion was down to the depth you had decended to within a minute as opposed to the duration of time itself.

    I would imagine that when you did your pre-dive safety checks both regs seemed to be functioning fine but at greater depth with the greater pressure, any restiction on air flow would become increasingly obvious? Can’t see how this can have any relationship to the use of EANx – more of an airflow issue than anything going off your description.

    Also, not sure how this relates to the topic of diving with asthma??? Perhaps you’ve posted in the wrong place!

    Reply
  15. Simon

    Ex diving instructor – have mild asthma – always lied on the forms as i know my own body – 400+ dives never 1 aborted. If anything the concentration on breathing whilst diving helps the asthma.

    Done properly diving should never be strenuous!

    My body, my decision.

    Reply
  16. Lee

    Hi. Having asthma since birth, i always wanted to scuba. I love snorkelling and can dive down and resurface to a decent depth with no problem, but when i asked my doctor about doing it he sraight away said ” no chance”. Ive not had a asthma attack in over 20yrs but still use a steroid inhaler at morn and night and a sabutomal inhaler as and wen needed… Now, ive just returned from hurgharda, eygpt where the dive school said i could try a dive if i felt well enough on the day. The day was a success and did two dives with an instructor down to a depth of 9mtrs.. i found after the dives my chest felt better and i never required the use of my inhaler for the nxt day or so…. Now im looking to take my open water course but need to find someone tht will allow me to do it…

    Reply

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