Allercy and Asthma Health
The Official Publication of AAN - MA

Why Colds Make Asthma Worse and What To Do About It


By Robert Seifrit, MS, RRT-NPS, RRT-ACCS, CPFT, AE-C

The common cold often causes symptoms such as a runny nose, nasal congestion, a sore throat, cough, and a fever, which can be bothersome to anyone. If you have asthma, you are not more likely to get a cold or flu because of your asthma. However, did you know a simple common cold virus can cause a person to have an asthma attack?

If a person has asthma, a cold can lead to tightness or wheezing in their chest. Respiratory viruses such as those that cause colds and flu are the principle causes of asthma flare-ups in children and adults. A cold virus can lead to a severe asthma attack.

How it works

Cold viruses cause inflammatory processes in the bronchiole tubes, which lie within the lining of the lungs. Those inflammatory processes cause the airway tubes to narrow, and that can lead to an asthma attack. Typical respiratory medications used to control asthma on a daily basis may fail to relieve symptoms caused by a cold virus. Also, symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness associated with an asthma attack can linger for days to several weeks after a respiratory viral infection.

There is no sure way to prevent yourself from getting a cold, but there are several steps you can take to minimize the chance of getting sick.

Ways to prevent a cold --

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds. You can also use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if you are out and about and can’t wash your hands.
  • Try to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed or un-sanitized hands because viruses can enter your body this way and make you sick.
  • Try to stay away from anyone who’s sick. Germs that cause respiratory infections can be easily spread from one person to another.
  • Get an annual flu vaccine. The CDC recommends that everyone age six months and older get a flu vaccine every season. People with asthma should only receive a flu shot. The CDC does not recommend nasal spray flu vaccinations for people with asthma.
  • Ask your primary care provider if you need to get a pneumonia vaccine. Having a cold or the flu increases your chance of getting pneumonia.

Despite your best intentions to avoid a cold, you may catch a cold. If you have asthma and acquire a cold, do the following –

  • Rest and drink plenty of fluids, and discuss potential over-the-counter medications you can use with your doctor to try and relieve the symptoms.
  • Follow your asthma action plan if your asthma flares up from a cold.
  • If you don’t already have a plan, talk to your physician about making one to follow when a cold virus triggers your asthma.
  • Use a peak flow device to monitor your air flow as directed by your health care provider.
  • Seek emergency medical treatment if your asthma symptoms worsen and cause you to have trouble breathing.

Prevent a severe attack

It is important to stay home from work or school if you have a cold. Initiating prompt treatment to ease and prevent severe asthma symptoms caused by a cold could help ensure your cold doesn’t end up causing a severe asthma attack.

Rob Seifrit is a member of the American Association for Respiratory Care from Florida, where he currently serves as a COPD and asthma disease manager at Lee Health.
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