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Asthma and the Flu: How to Avoid Attacks While Sick

How to get the right care when the flu makes asthma worse.

Getting the flu with asthma

Asthma is a condition where the airways of the lungs are hyperresponsive—they overreact—to a specific trigger such as allergies (including dust or pet dander), cold air, or exercise. It can start in childhood, the teen years, or adulthood. Asthma can cause difficulty breathing, wheezing, cough, and chest tightness.

The flu, which is caused by the influenza virus, is a common asthma trigger, as are other viruses like the common cold. By itself, the flu can cause fever, body aches, headache, congestion, a sore throat, tiredness, and loss of appetite. People with asthma often have more severe flu symptoms for a longer period of time. The flu can also make their asthma symptoms worse.

Why is the flu bad for asthmatics?

Pro Tip

Before the flu season, make sure to create an Asthma Action Plan with your doctor so you know how to treat an asthma attack at the earliest sign—before it gets worse. —Dr. Bina Choi

Having asthma does not make you any more likely to catch the flu, but it makes you more likely to have more severe symptoms for a longer time if you do catch it. If you have asthma and get the flu, you not only will have the typical symptoms of the flu, but you can develop wheezing, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, cough, and/or chest tightness.

Since the flu lasts for 2 to 5 days, and sometimes longer, your asthma symptoms can last that long as well.

If you have asthma, you are at an increased risk of developing an infection in the lungs (pneumonia) from either the flu itself, or from bacteria (another bug). You may feel short of breath, have increased cough with yellow or green phlegm, and low oxygen levels (which you can measure using an at-home oximeter device).

You may have pneumonia if your flu symptoms don't improve and remain constant for several days or if you started to feel better for a day or two, but then symptoms came back.

What to do if you have asthma and get the flu?

If you get the flu and it triggers your asthma, ask your doctor or pulmonologist (lung specialist) if you need any additional medications to help you recover. The goal is to keep your asthma symptoms from becoming severe.

Severe asthma attacks can cause such severe blockage of your airways that you are no longer able to breathe on your own without treatment in the hospital.

If you are having severe difficulty breathing, call 911 immediately. Without prompt treatment, a severe asthma attack can be fatal.

Treatment of asthma and flu

Dr. Rx

If you have asthma, always ask your doctor: When will the flu vaccine be available this season? —Dr. Choi

If you have asthma and you get the flu, stay home, rest, drink fluids, and take acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), or naproxen (Aleve) to reduce the fever.

Short-acting inhalers help asthma flares when they come on. You may find that you need the inhaler more frequently if you have the flu. Inhalers include short-acting beta agonists (such as albuterol), which relax the muscles in the lungs and open up the airways, and steroids (such as budesonide or fluticasone), which decrease the inflammation in the lungs.

Your doctor may also recommend a nebulizer (aerosolized medicine given through a mask) to more effectively deliver the medication to your lungs while you are sick. You may also be treated with an oral steroid (such as prednisone), which should work within hours.

If the flu is diagnosed within the first two days of symptoms, your doctor may prescribe Tamiflu (oseltamivir), which may reduce the length of time you feel symptoms, although the evidence for this is mixed.

Asthma, the flu, and kids

Children with asthma are at higher risk of complications when they get the flu. Because their airways are smaller, children may have more severe symptoms—such as wheezing and difficulty breathing.

If your child is wheezing significantly without improving or is having difficulty breathing or worsening asthma symptoms, call your doctor or take your child to the emergency room.

Will an inhaler help with the flu?

If you have the flu and it is making your asthma symptoms worse, it’s important to use your inhaler regularly. If you do not have asthma, there is no evidence that an inhaler will help with symptoms if you get the flu.

Preventative tips

Pro Tip

A common misconception is that the flu vaccine makes you sick. You may have a brief reaction to it (sore arm, feeling lousy), but that reaction is temporary and is much better than getting sick with the flu. —Dr. Choi

You may be able to prevent asthma symptoms by knowing what triggers your asthma and avoiding those things. Triggers may include allergies, seasonal changes, mold, dust mites, rodents, cigarettes, occupational exposures, cold air, aspirin or NSAIDs, or exercise.

If you have asthma, make sure to create a written Asthma Action Plan with your doctor so you know how to treat an asthma attack at the earliest sign, before it gets worse. And make sure the plan includes what to do if a viral infection like the flu makes your asthma symptoms worse.

To avoid getting sick during flu season:

  • Get a flu shot every year in the fall. Flu shots are especially important for people with asthma, who have a higher risk of complications from the flu. Flu shots are available from your doctor or at pharmacies.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water often.
  • Don’t touch your face if you haven’t washed your hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Eat healthy foods and get regular exercise to boost your immune system.
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