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The English Institute of Sport (EIS), in collaboration with the Institute of Sport Exercise & Health (ISEH), Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust and Imperial College London are embarking on a project aimed at optimising respiratory health in a large cohort of elite athletes known to be susceptible to respiratory illness.

The collaborative project is one of several EIS Athlete Respiratory Health initiatives aimed at reducing the impact of respiratory illness on training and competition availability. The results are likely to have wider public application with respiratory illness being a major economic and healthcare concern in the UK.

The project will evaluate and support improved care in the prevention, detection and diagnosis of respiratory illness in over a hundred athletes identified as being susceptible to respiratory illness from a cross-section of Olympic and Paralympic sports.

Dr James Hull, consultant respiratory physician at Royal Brompton Hospital and Imperial College London, and an expert in athlete respiratory health, said: Respiratory illness is the most prevalent health issue in athletes. This project offers a great opportunity for us to really understand this area properly, to help athletes remain fully available for training and competition.

“We plan to work with the EIS to apply the world-leading clinical and research expertise at Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust and the National Heart and Lung Institute to inform best care for athletes, by identifying and supporting the application of state-of-the-art assessment and treatments.”

From June 2018, identified athletes will undergo comprehensive respiratory health risk factor profiling at EIS sites across England that includes tests of their breathing function, immune and allergy status, respiratory tract bacterial profile, medication use and illness history. The project team will work with World Class Programme staff so that the athletes receive best practice advice in how to prevent and manage respiratory illness.

According to EIS data, respiratory illness is the largest athlete health problem within the UK High Performance System. Symptoms associated with respiratory infection (such as headache, persistent cough, sore throats and nasal discharge) and asthma (that can result in breathing difficulty) are very common in international athletes and can have a big impact on training capacity and championship performance.

In the two-year period to July 20 2017, there were 630 respiratory illnesses recorded in 402 athletes, with an average of nine days of restricted training per occurrence, totalling around 5,800 days or nearly 16 years of training days impacted.

Over 30% of the affected athletes had repeated occurrences in the two-year period with the diagnosis of upper respiratory tract infection (URTI e.g. sinusitis, laryngitis and the common cold) accounting for 85% of respiratory illness occurrences, followed by asthma with 11%.

It is also likely that under-reporting and self-managing of respiratory illness means that the rate and impact of respiratory illnesses is likely to be higher still.

The EIS Athlete Health Team will lead the project in conjunction with Dr James Hull and Dr Mike Loosemore, EIS Sports Physician and Lead Consultant in Sport and Exercise Medicine at the ISEH. The project team will work closely with Royal Brompton Hospital (the UK’s leading respiratory hospital), Imperial’s National Heart and Lung Institute and medical and sport science practitioners from the EIS and national governing bodies.

Dr Rod Jaques, Director of Medical Services at the EIS, said: “A key part of our work with sports is to improve the health and wellbeing of athletes.

“It is therefore the aim to optimise respiratory health management to not only cut down on lost training time due to illness, but to improve the overall health and well-being of athletes.

“The cross collaboration and expertise from different partners is key to this project’s success. Royal Brompton Hospital is one of the top institutions for understanding upper and lower respiratory tract problems in the UK, the data we collect will be vital in progressing our understanding of athlete respiratory illness and health.”