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Lung-Related Issues a Football Player Should Be Aware of

Chronic respiratory diseases are among the primary causes of disability and death in the Americas and have claimed 534,242 lives in 2019 alone.

These statistics suggest that anyone, even football players and other athletes, can experience adverse lung conditions that affect a person’s personal, social, and professional life.

These lung diseases can range from asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) to the varying stages of mesothelioma and lung cancer.

What lung-related conditions affect football players, and how do these conditions affect these athletes? Are there any football players with lung problems?

Can players diagnosed with lung conditions still pursue football? What tips and best practices should football players consider to prevent or minimize their risks of such conditions?

This article discusses the various lung conditions that can affect football players. It also lists players with lung problems and how their condition has affected their careers.

Read on to discover the best practices and tips to help prevent or minimize the risk of various lung conditions. It also addresses whether players diagnosed with respiratory conditions can continue playing football.

Lung Conditions That Typically Affect Football Players

Numerous lung-related diseases can affect even the most seasoned football players. Here are some of those conditions:

  • Asthma: This condition causes your airways to narrow, swell, and produce excess mucus. Asthma can trigger coughing, breathing difficulty,  wheezing sounds when you breathe, and shortness of breath.

This chronic pulmonary condition can negatively affect players through airway inflammation, reversible obstruction, and hyper responsiveness.

One study involving elite endurance athletes showed that among 591 subjects, 141 athletes (or 23.9% of the sample) had asthma.

Overall, asthma prevalence in athletes is typically higher than in the general population and ranges from 23% to 55%, with higher rates observed among endurance athletes.

Asthma in sports often gets classified into two main categories:

  • Exercise-induced asthma (EIA): Occurs when exercise activities cause bronchial obstruction in people with asthma.
    • Exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB): Obstructs the airways due to exercise even if the person is not diagnosed with clinical asthma.
  • Pneumothorax: This condition happens when there’s a collection of air within the space between the lung and chest wall.

Although pneumothorax is rare, it’s a potentially life-threatening pulmonary condition requiring prompt recognition and immediate treatment and care. About 2% of all adult pneumothoraces occur in sports and can be tension-related or spontaneous.

  • Spontaneous pneumothorax: This condition is often found in tall, thin, and young people and occurs spontaneously.

In some cases, this condition can occur within the setting of underlying pulmonary diseases, like asthma, pneumonia, and cystic fibrosis.

  • Tension pneumothorax: This disease, which occurs less commonly, usually happens when there’s penetrating or blunt trauma due to a fractured rib damaging the pleura (a thin tissue covering the lungs).

Blunt trauma that causes tension pneumothorax is usually due to thoracic (relating to the area between the abdomen and neck) collisions at high speed.

Due to the nature of the game, football athletes are likely to get such injuries.

  • Respiratory infections: These infections and their symptoms are a common complaint among the general and athletic population. These infections include:
    • Bronchitis (an infection that leads to the inflammation of airways )
    • Bacterial or viral pharyngitis (sore throat)
    • Pneumonia (a respiratory infection in the lungs)
    • Lower respiratory infection (infection in the lungs’ lower airways)
    • Mononucleosis (a contagious infection due to the herpes virus)
    • Peritonsillar abscess (pus-filled tissue at the back of the mouth)
    • Viral or bacterial sinusitis (fluid buildup in the sinuses)
    • Viral upper respiratory infection (an infection affecting the upper air passages)

Common symptoms of these diseases include:

  • Cough
    • Sore throat
    • Nasal congestion
    • Postnasal drip
    • Headache
    • Fever
    • Fatigue
    • Nausea

Football Players With Lung-Related Issues

Notable football players, including current and former NFL (National Football League) players, who had lung problems include the following:

  • Treylon Burks: He plays as a wide receiver for the Tennessee Titans and has been diagnosed with asthma. Despite this condition, doctors say this condition shouldn’t limit one from playing as long as it’s well-managed.
  • Emmit Smith: Sports enthusiasts consider former Dallas Cowboys player Emmit Smith one of the greatest running backs in history. Despite having an asthma diagnosis, Smith continued playing with the NFL for 15 seasons.
  • Jerome Bettis: A former football running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jerome “The Bus” Bettis, spoke publicly about an asthma attack during a nationally televised football game in 1997. He said that the incident helped him better control his asthma symptoms.

Best Practices and Tips to Prevent Severe Lung Conditions

Football is a high-impact sport. It involves potential trauma and requires intense sportswear and strong, weight-bearing joints, particularly the ankles, hips, and knees.

So if you’re into the sport, your body, even vital organs like the lungs, is always jeopardized. Fortunately, there are many ways to minimize your risk for such diseases. Some best practices include:

  • Minimizing exposure to outdoor air pollution
  • Avoiding indoor pollutants, like secondhand smoke and home or workplace chemicals
  • Quitting smoking, a primary cause of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and lung cancer
  • Preventing infections by washing hands, avoiding crowds during flu season, getting vaccinated, and practicing good oral hygiene.

For more tips and best practices on protecting yourself from lung-related issues, especially if you’re playing a high-impact sport like football, call the American Lung Association at 1-800-586-4872.

You can also donate to the organization’s cause to help fund lung disease research and promote lung health education by visiting


  1. Chronic respiratory disease burden
  1. Asthma: Symptoms & Causes
  1. Return to Play in Asthma and Pulmonary Conditions
  1. High incidence rate of asthma among elite endurance athletes: a prospective 4-year survey
  1. Protecting Your Lungs

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