Allercy and Asthma Health
The Official Publication of AAN - MA

Viruses and Asthma: What You Need To
Know To Battle the Bugs This Winters

By Bill Pruitt, RRT, CPFT, AE-C


Viruses are frequently the cause of colds and flu during the winter. Most colds are caused by an infection with the rhinovirus. Respiratory syncytial virus, or “RSV,” is another virus that can make you sick. The flu is caused by the influenza virus.

People with asthma often see their asthma symptoms get worse when they get a cold or the flu. If you have asthma, you should take steps to prevent these infections. This article will talk about virus-induced asthma, what you can do to avoid this problem, and how to treat it if you do get sick. But first, let’s take a look at asthma in general to see how colds and the flu can impact the condition.

Understanding asthma

Asthma is a lung disease that affects the airways. The airways are similar to tubes or pipes and are responsible for carrying the air we breathe down to the tiny air sacs (called alveoli). The air sacs are where oxygen moves into the blood to be used by the body and carbon dioxide moves out of the blood to be exhaled.

Asthma causes the airways to become inflamed—they get irritated and swollen—which makes the airways smaller and makes it harder to breathe. The inflammation is always present, but it gets worse as asthma gets more serious.

People with asthma also have problems with asthma attacks. This happens when the muscles that surround the airways suddenly constrict or tighten and is called a “bronchospasm.” Bronchospasms also make the airways smaller and make it harder to breathe.

Finally, asthma causes the airways to produce more mucus or phlegm and makes us cough.

All this inflammation, bronchospasm, and increased mucus leads to asthma symptoms. Asthma symptoms include coughing, wheezes, chest tightness, and feeling short of breath. An asthma attack increases these symptoms and makes it very hard to breathe.

For people with asthma, getting a cold or the flu can bring on an asthma attack and increase asthma symptoms. The cold or flu can last for many days, making breathing difficult for an extended period of time.

Tips on prevention

Luckily, there are many things you can do to help protect yourself from getting a cold or the flu. Here are some good prevention strategies:

  • Get a flu shot each year from your doctor, clinic, or health department. This helps prevent you from getting the flu, and rest assured, the flu shot DOES NOT cause you to get the flu! While it is best to get the flu shot in the fall, shots are available throughout the flu season, which generally runs from fall through spring, and it is never too late to get a flu shot.
  • Be careful to wash your hands frequently and ask your family members and friends to do the same. Viruses that cause colds and flu are spread by our hands.
  • You, your family, and your friends should also cover coughs and sneezes. Uncovered coughs and sneezes can spread the virus and increase the risk of others getting sick.
  • Avoid being in crowds of people and getting exposed to those who have colds or the flu—if they are sick they will be coughing and sneezing and can spread the virus.
  • Always take your asthma medications as your doctor instructed.
  • If you get a sinus infection, get it treated as soon as possible. Sinus infections can trigger an asthma attack and then can move into your chest to cause pneumonia.

You should also have an Asthma Action Plan to help you know what to do if you start feeling sick or get an asthma attack. If you get a cold or the flu, follow your Asthma Action Plan and see your doctor. Treatment may include increasing the dose or frequency of some of your asthma medications and taking other medications to reduce symptoms. It is also important to drink lots of water, get plenty of rest, avoid things that make your asthma worse, and avoid people who are sick.

Colds and flu occur more often in the fall and winter, so you should be extra careful during these seasons to take good care of your asthma and avoid getting sick.

You can find more information on asthma and colds in WebMD’s Cold & Flu Health Center.

Bill Pruitt, RRT, CPFT, AE-C, is a member of the American Association for Respiratory Care from Mobile, AL. He currently  teaches respiratory therapy at the University of South Alabama in Mobile and works as a respiratory therapist at local hospitals in the area.
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