Is It a Cold or Flu?

Navigating Symptoms With Asthma

Sick Patient With Flu
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When you have asthma it is really important to determine if your symptoms are a cold or flu. While you may think of yourself as no different from others in your community, asthma puts you at higher risk for complications with the flu.

Flu’s Impact On Asthma

When you have asthma, the flu can increase your regular asthma symptoms such as:

The worsening symptoms are a result of swelling and inflammation in the lungs. Additionally, flu may lead to a bacterial infection in the lungs such as pneumonia. Respiratory infections are potentially more serious when you have asthma—you are more likely to require hospitalization with an acute respiratory illness during a flu outbreak compared to patients without asthma.

Flu Symptoms

  • Symptoms generally start suddenly and are more severe. It is not unusual for patients to describe feeling relatively well and then experience the sudden onset of chills, fever, and muscle aches.
  • Patients often describe severe debilitation, exhaustion, feel incapacitated, and do not want to do more than lie in bed.
  • Flu is commonly, but not always associated with fever. The fever is generally higher and will occur over a longer period of time compared to a low-grade fever that may sometimes occur with the common cold.
  • Asthmatics with flu are at higher risk of complications including pneumonia and hospitalization.

Cold Symptoms

  • Symptoms are less severe and develop more slowly over several days.
  • While patients feel bad, they are less likely to just lay in bed incapacitated. A patient is more likely to describe himself as tired and not quite their self but still able to function fairly well.
  • Fever is less common and less severe than that associated with flu symptoms.
  • Asthmatics with a cold may need to increase rescue inhaler use per their asthma action plan and are at risk of an asthma attack, but not other complications associated with the flu.

Diagnosis: Cold Vs. Flu

Many times your doctor will make a clinical diagnosis based on the symptoms described above. However, because flu treatment is available and its utility depends on the time course of diagnosis, your doctor may choose to perform a flu test.

There are a number of rapid diagnostic tests to determine if your symptoms are due to flu. In general, your doctor will swab your nose or the back of the throat and send the swab for testing. Results are generally available in 30 minutes or less. While a positive test generally indicates that you have the flu, the tests are not 100 percent sensitive so you could still have the flu if the test is negative.


When you have asthma it is important to determine if you have a cold or flu because the treatment is different. While there is no cure for the common cold, there are treatment possibilities. While treatment of the common cold is not likely to improve your asthma, you will feel better. Over the counter ​pain relievers like acetaminophen will often improve symptoms of the common cold such as low-grade fever, sore throat, and headache. While children should not use decongestants and nasal sprays, these medications may provide symptomatic relief of congestion for adults.

Treating flu, on the other hand, is more likely to have a benefit. When flu and asthma occur together, your doctor is likely to prescribe a class of drugs known as antivirals. These drugs can prevent the flu from worsening your asthma and complications associated with the flu. Unlike cold treatments, these medications are only available from a doctor and require a prescription.

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