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Asthma: Take steps to avoid respiratory infections

Respiratory infections such as colds and the flu can cause asthma to flare up. Taking steps to avoid these infections, and making a plan for treating them promptly when they do occur, can help you avoid complications.

When you have asthma, your airways are already compromised. Respiratory infections like colds or the flu (influenza) just make matters worse.

Even if your asthma is well-managed, a respiratory infection can send it spiraling out of control.

Soon you're coughing and having trouble breathing. The wheezing in your lungs won't let you get a good night's sleep.

Perhaps most frustrating of all, the infection is likely viral. That means antibiotics won't make it go away.

You can treat your symptoms, of course. And you can work with your doctor to wrangle your asthma back under control.

However, your best recourse may be to take steps now to prevent infection later.

Asthma and infections

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), much about asthma is still unknown.

It is often, but not always, related to allergies. And genetics do seem to play a role in determining who is susceptible to it.

Many people develop asthma when they're young, notes the AAFA. But it can also occur at any time in adulthood.

People with asthma have very sensitive airways that are easily inflamed, leading to flare-ups of wheezing, coughing and mucus production. These flare-ups are often triggered by such things as:

  • Allergens, like dust mites, pollens and mold.
  • Irritants, such as smoke, strong odors or fumes.
  • Environmental factors, like cold air.
  • Viral infections, such as the common cold and the flu.

Preventing infection

A yearly influenza vaccine is the most effective way to protect yourself against the flu.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccination for everyone with asthma and other chronic lung diseases. The flu shot is approved for everyone 6 months and older regardless of asthma or another health condition.

There is no vaccine for the common cold. However, there are steps you can take to avoid getting it and other infections.

The following protective measures come from the American Lung Association (ALA):

  • Avoid close contact with people who are ill.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Avoid touching your hands to your mouth, eyes or nose.

Respiratory infections can lead to serious problems for people with asthma, so you might want to also ask your doctor if a pneumonia vaccine is appropriate.

Treating infections

If your best efforts fall short and you do get a respiratory infection, an effective asthma management plan can help you avoid complications.

An asthma plan is a written outline of how to control your asthma and what steps to take if symptoms worsen. Call your doctor if you don't have a plan or think your current plan isn't working well.

Although you may not be able to cure your infection, you have a number of options for relieving its symptoms.

Antiviral medications can lessen influenza's impact, but they work best if taken within two days of onset. Remind the prescribing doctor that you have asthma, since the antiviral zanamivir (brand name Relenza) can be problematic for people with chronic lung diseases.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist to recommend over-the-counter medications to treat fever, congestion or muscle aches. Be sure to let him or her know about any health conditions you have and what other medicines you take.

Drink plenty of non-caffeinated liquids, recommends the ALA. And call your doctor if you're having problems breathing or you develop a high fever.

reviewed 9/13/2019

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