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If you have asthma and you catch a cold or the flu, the temporary discomfort of a stuffy nose, a sore throat or an irritating cough may be the least of your problems. Minor respiratory infections can mean major problems for children and adults with asthma.
Most people with asthma develop some wheezing and chest tightness about two days after coming down with a cold. These symptoms, which are distinct from cold symptoms, may continue for at least two weeks. Also, mild asthma symptoms can easily become more severe — and harder to shake — when you have a cold.
That doesn't mean you need to wear a face mask whenever you go out during cold and flu season. Instead, be extra diligent about following your asthma management plan and take reasonable precautions to avoid colds and flu. Most important, be aware of how you feel. If a cold exacerbates your asthma, call your doctor.
Here's the lowdown on respiratory infections and asthma, along with more tips about managing asthma when you have a cold or the flu.
When you have asthma, the air passages in your lungs overreact to various allergens and irritants — including viruses. Rather than fighting the virus, your lungs may secrete substances that promote inflammation. Because airway inflammation is one of the basic characteristics of asthma, this reaction can be bad news. Compounding the problem, viruses can replicate themselves more extensively in lungs affected by asthma than in healthy lungs.
Despite your best intentions to stay healthy, an occasional cold or case of the flu may be inevitable.
- Call your doctor if you think you have the flu. Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication to help shorten the flu's duration and intensity. To be effective, antiviral medication must be taken within 24 to 48 hours after symptoms appear. The benefits of antiviral medication for colds are less clear.
- Take good care of yourself. Rest. Drink plenty of fluids. With your doctor's OK, use over-the-counter cold or flu remedies to relieve your symptoms. The medication won't help you get over the cold or flu faster, but it can help you feel better in the meantime.
- Pay close attention to your asthma symptoms. If you notice warning signs of an asthma attack — such as coughing, wheezing, chest tightness or shortness of breath — adjust your medication as directed by your doctor. Quick action can help prevent a severe attack.
- Monitor your airflow. Use a peak flow meter to monitor how well your lungs are working from day to day. Take your readings at the same time every day. If you notice a drop in your peak flow rate, adjust your medication as directed by your doctor.
- Know when your illness is something more serious. Seek medical care if you have trouble breathing of if your throat is extremely sore. Also get quick medical attention if you have any signs of pneumonia, such as a high fever, sharp pain when taking deep breaths or a cough bringing up phlegm.
When you're feeling better, do your best to stay that way. Eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep and exercise regularly. Ask your doctor about a yearly flu shot, as well as the pneumonia vaccine. Wash your hands often, and avoid contact with anyone who's sick.