The Facts About the Flu and Asthma

Prevention and treatment differ from non-asthmatics

Woman with the flu
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You may sometimes forget that if you have asthma, you have a greater risk of certain illness than others. This is true even if you are able to control your asthma and rarely have symptoms. So while your first instinct may be to shrug off the flu as something you can deal with, don't kid yourself.

Flu and asthma are a deadly mix, one which places you at increased risk for complications while exposing your lungs to severe, and even permanent, damage.

Flu and Respiratory Complications

While people with asthma are no more likely to get the flu than anyone else, the consequences of infection are far greater. This is because influenza causes respiratory inflammation that not only triggers the symptoms of asthma (wheezingchest tightness, shortness of breath, chronic cough) but makes them worse.

The combination of the flu and asthma symptoms (including bronchoconstriction and excess mucus production) can challenge even the best of immune systems, increasing the increased risk of pneumonia and hospitalization. This is especially true for children and adults over 65.

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, 32 percent of children hospitalized for seasonal influenza between 2003 and 2009 had asthma. Children with asthma, meanwhile, have a fourfold greater risk of getting the H1N1 virus than non-asthmatic children and represented 44 percent of all pediatric hospitalizations as a result o the infections.

Prevention Before Treatment

Before considering treatment options if you get the flu, focus on preventing infection in the first place. Start by getting your annual flu shot, ideally before the season begins. The flu season can vary from one part of the country to the next, starting as early as October and ending as late as May.

Begin checking with your local health department or pharmacy in early fall to find when the next quadrivalent flu vaccine is set to be released. Each annual vaccine aims to prevent the four strains of influenza predicted to predominate that year.

Vaccination is relatively quick with few complications. There are a few things to consider, however, if you have asthma:

  • Always get the flu shot and not the nasal spray. The nasal spray could trigger an asthma attack.
  • While people were once told to avoid the flu vaccine if they had an egg allergy, that is no longer the case. This is true no matter how severe your egg allergy may be. If in doubt, speak with your doctor.
  • Despite fears that the shot may give you the flu, the vaccines are, in fact, made from materials which only resemble the virus. They can neither cause the flu nor can they trigger an attack.
  • Beyond vaccination, practice good hygiene by washing your hands regularly, keeping your hands from your face, and steering clear of people who look sick.
  • In addition to the flu shot, it recommended that you get a pneumonia vaccination if you haven't done so yet.

Treating the Flu If You Have Asthma

Despite one's best efforts to avoid the flu, it can sometimes hit the best of us.

If it does, don't panic. Simply call your doctor as soon as symptoms arise and get a prescription for a type of flu medication known as an antiviral. Antivirals work by suppressing viral activity which, in turn, alleviates the inflammation that can worsen asthma symptoms. They may not help you avoid the flu, but they can reduce both its severity and the risk of complications. 

Depending on the flu strains in your community, your doctor may recommend one or a combination of the following antiviral drugs:

As a general rule, people with asthma who think they have the flu should consider antiviral treatment, ideally within 24 to 48 hours of the first appearance of symptoms.

Additionally, persons with asthma can opt for antiviral therapy if they have no symptoms but believe themselves exposed to the virus. Called chemoprophylaxis, the therapy aims to avert infection by hitting it hard before symptoms arise. It should be started no later than 48 hours of exposure and will continue daily for 10 days to two weeks, depending on your doctor's recommendation.

Sources:

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. "Asthma Statistics." Milwaukie, Wisconsin; updated 2016.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Flu and People with Asthma." January 25, 2017. Atlanta, Georgia; updated January 5, 2017.

CDC. "What You Should Know About Flu Antiviral Drugs." January 5, 2017.

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