How To Jump Smart When You've Got Asthma
Photographer: Wolfgang Lienbacher
Ah, the sky: the beautiful bubble of air that surrounds us all in a breezy embrace.
But what if your lungs have a troubled relationship with that air? If you’re an asthmatic and getting into skydiving, you’re facing a substantial--but surmountable--challenge.
You’ll be happy to hear that you’re not the first to square up to the sky with flimsy airbags. Many asthmatics are successful sport skydivers. In fact, some studies show that exposure to high altitudes can even improve the lung function of people with asthma. (Ha! Take that, haters.) That said, you need to check off a few boxes on your way to the plane. Here’s a quick tipsheet.
Get your doc’s signoff.
If you want to be a serious sport skydiver, your asthma must be stable and under excellent control. Don’t take your own word for it, either--speak to your doctor about it. Your doctor will need to confirm that your peak flows (or spirometry) should be close to the normal range. This can be quite discretionary stuff, so get a second opinion if necessary. Unfortunately, severe, persistent asthma and skydiving are not a good mix.
Know where your meds are.
It’s rule number one for you in your landlubber life, and it remains rule number one in the sky: you must know where your meds are at all times.
Keep that rescue inhaler readily available--not buried in a bag, floating in with the rest of your gear--and make sure other people know where it is. Making sure it’s in the pocket of jumpsuit is definitely not the worst idea--and keeping a permanent backup in your dropzone kit is a very, very good one.
Go easy on yourself.
Skydiving is exercise, and it’s exercise in a cold-air environment. The high altitudes we reach on sport skydives can compromise weaker lungs, reducing the oxygen in an asthmatic jumper’s blood to the point of unsafety. These conditions are challenging even for people who fall within the healthy, normal range--so an asthmatic can expect to exert proportionally more effort on each jump. Listen to your body. Don’t push it.
Declare your meds.
The dropzone needs to know if you’re on medication, so be clear and specific about what your treatments include.
Also note that if competitive skydiving is on your horizon, you’ll need to make sure the governing organization is aware of all the prescription medications you’re taking. Anti-doping rules are in place for all competitors, and some asthma medications are on the list. You wouldn’t want to see your team’s faces at a DQ you could have seen coming.
Don’t be shy.
While you’re talking to your new dropzone about your asthma and declaring your meds, talk to them about the supplemental oxygen on the plane. If you’re on a long hold at altitude, don't be shy about asking for it.
Be okay out of the pollen bubble.
Is pollen a problem? Be aware that most dropzones around the world are located in agricultural areas. You may actually be physically landing in a cultivated crop field chock-full of pollen. If that sounds like your idea of a very bad time, you may need to get creative about where and when you jump.
Make sure your bones aren’t compromised.
As asthmatics are probably aware, a regular dose of oral steroids can be very bad for the structural integrity of your skeleton. If that describes you, make sure you’re thoroughly medically assessed for osteoporosis and that your bone density sits within the normal range. Learning to fly a sport skydiving parachute doesn’t automatically mean you’re doomed to crash landings, but they’re far more likely in the early days of your jumping career--and potentially much more injurious for a medicated asthmatic than for others.
Brand new? Address your anxiety as early as possible.
Anxiety is a very normal part of the early skydiving experience. This is true for everyone.
Asthmatics--especially folks for whom emotional spikes can trigger an asthma attack--must deal with this in a much more thoughtful, procedural ways than others. The good news is that you can expect the intensity of anxiety to lessen over the course of your skydiving career; the bad news is that, in the beginning, it’s quite a hurdle to get over.
Here’s a hot tip: there are plenty of ways to prepare your body for the experience. The wind tunnel is a great hack. If you take some time to acclimate your body to the feeling of freefall in this controlled environment, you’ll have proportionally less anxiety once you get into the sky. Take a tandem skydive to be introduced to the procedure, the plane, the facility and the sky.
Give yourself the time to approach your sport skydiving career sideways, not overwhelmingly all-at-once, and your lungs will be that much happier in the sky. After all, it’s the sky we fill our lungs with; it’s time yours were properly introduced.