Why Does Asthma Get Worse When You're Sick?

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Asthma is a chronic illness that affects the lungs and makes it harder to breathe. It can be brought on by various triggers in the environment like pollen, dust, and mold. Asthma-related symptoms can become worse when you're sick with a virus, such as those that cause the common cold or the flu. This is known as viral-induced asthma.

This article discusses the different viruses that can make your asthma worse and the available treatment options.

Sick woman blowing her nose

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Asthma Statistics

Asthma affects up to 334 million people worldwide and is responsible for 2 million emergency room visits in the United States each year.

These hospitalization rates can be predicted by the season. One study that looked at seasonal risk factors for asthma attacks among people between the ages of 6 and 20 years old found that 28.8% of asthma attacks occurred in the fall, followed by 19.9% in the spring, 15.9% in the winter, and 14.5% in the summer.

Cold and Flu

Viral-induced asthma is typically triggered by the common cold, which is caused by a virus known as human rhinovirus (HRV). It is responsible for 60%–70% of viral-induced asthma attacks.

Cold and flu symptoms often feel similar. You might have a cough, sore throat, and a runny or stuffy nose.

The flu tends to be more severe than the common cold and can come on quickly. It is often associated with fevers, body aches, and fatigue.

Viral-Induced Asthma vs. Cold-Induced Asthma

Although changing seasons can bring colder weather, cold-induced asthma is not the same as viral-induced asthma. Viral-induced asthma is triggered by the virus that causes a cold, unlike cold-induced asthma, which is caused by breathing in cold air.

Treatment

The best treatment for cold and flu symptoms is time. These illnesses typically go away after 10–14 days.

Viral infections cannot be treated with antibiotics. However, there are steps you can take if a cold makes your asthma worse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends pain relievers or certain cough and cold medicines, depending on a person's age. Check with your healthcare provider before giving these medicines to your child, as some ingredients may not be safe for children.

Asthma does put you at risk for complications of the flu. If you are experiencing severe flu symptoms, your healthcare provider might prescribe an antiviral medication to help improve symptoms faster and reduce the risk of complications.

Relenza Warning

Relenza (zanamivir), an antiviral medication, is not recommended for people with asthma. It has been shown to make asthma symptoms worse in some people.

Allergies

When a person has allergy-induced asthma, their risk for an asthma attack increases when they are exposed to a substance called an allergen. The allergen triggers a response by the immune system, causing the airways to swell, making it difficult to breathe.

Triggers are different for everyone, so it's important to identify yours and make efforts to avoid them. The symptoms of an allergy-induced asthma attack are the same as viral-induced asthma and include wheezing and shortness of breath.

Treatment

If you have asthma, it's important to work with your healthcare provider to create a plan to avoid your triggers and be prepared if an allergy attack does occur. The most common way to treat an allergy-induced asthma attack is with a rescue inhaler, a device that quickly dispenses medicine to relieve or stop asthma symptoms.

COVID-19

COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which affects the lungs. For this reason, people with asthma have a higher risk of being hospitalized due to COVID-19.

The symptoms of COVID-19 can vary from person to person, but people with moderate to severe asthma may be more likely to experience severe respiratory symptoms like coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing.

The physiology of asthma puts people with the disease at higher risk, but one 2020 study found that people with asthma were 14.5% more consistent at taking their medications at the beginning of the pandemic. They also were more adherent to COVID-19 prevention measures, suggesting that people with asthma may have lower COVID-19 risk when taking precautions.

Treatment

You should continue to follow your asthma treatment plan with COVID. If your symptoms do not improve or they get worse over time, seek medical care.

Depending on how severe your case is, at the hospital you may receive supplemental oxygen, an anti-inflammatory medication called dexamethasone, or an anti-viral medication called Veklury (remdesivir). Others may receive monoclonal antibodies to help the body identify the virus and fight it off more quickly.

Prevention

The most effective way to prevent viral-induced asthma is to practice preventive measures such as:

  • Get vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19.
  • Wash your hands regularly.
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces.
  • Wear a mask in public settings.
  • Practice social distancing.
  • Adhere to your medication regime.

Summary

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that can get worse when you're sick with a virus. This is known as viral-induced asthma. Viruses that might exacerbate asthma symptoms include the common cold, the flu, and COVID-19. Allergies can also worsen symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

Living with asthma comes with challenges, especially during cold and flu season, when you are more likely to face the risk of viral infections. Sticking to your asthma treatment plan, avoiding triggers, taking your asthma medications as prescribed, and practicing preventive measures can all help to reduce your risk. If you have any symptoms of COVID-19, be sure to get tested as soon as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is asthma curable?

    Asthma is not curable, but it is controllable. Work with your healthcare provider to develop an asthma treatment plan that is tailored to your own triggers and medication requirements.

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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