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How the Flu Affects People With Asthma

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Updated August 15, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

The flu is a serious illness for all of us. Body aches and fevers make us all feel terrible, but the flu is primarily a respiratory virus. For those with asthma, a respiratory illness can be particularly scary.

When someone with asthma is having an "attack," breathing becomes difficult because the airways swell. It is often described as feeling like you are trying to breathe in and out through a drinking straw. If you have never tried to do this, you should. You will have a whole new appreciation for just how serious asthma is. When you add mucous and coughing (which often come with the flu) into the mix, it can be a disaster.

Just because you have asthma doesn't mean you are more likely to catch the flu, but you are more likely to suffer complications from it. Things like bronchitis and pneumonia develop quickly in people with asthma and can be quite serious.

Preventing the Flu

Due to the likelihood that you will develop these serious complications, you should do everything you can to prevent the flu if you have asthma.

Getting a flu shot is the best way to prevent the flu. People with asthma cannot get FluMist, the nasal spray flu vaccine, because it is not approved for people with a history of asthma or wheezing. Although it cannot give you the flu, it is an inhaled vaccine (meaning it is breathed in through your nose), which could trigger an asthma attack.

Everyone over the age of 6 months with asthma should get a flu shot. If your child has asthma, is between the ages of 6 months and 9 years, and has never had a flu shot before, he will need to get two flu shots at least four weeks apart.

Preventing Complications

In addition to the flu shot, people with asthma between the ages of 19 and 64 should also get the pneumonia (pneumococcal) vaccine to help reduce the risk of developing pneumonia.

If You Get Sick

If you have asthma and develop flu symptoms, contact your health care provider as soon as possible.

Antiviral medications are approved for use in people with asthma and may reduce your risk of developing complications if you do get the flu. They can also help reduce the severity of your symptoms and the duration that you are sick.

Your doctor will need to examine you and will probably do a quick flu test. If you are diagnosed with the flu, he may decide that antivirals are right for you.

Whether or not you are able to take antiviral medications, there are other things you can do to help yourself recover from the flu. Be sure to get plenty of rest (you won't feel up to doing much anyway), drink enough to stay hydrated, and try over-the-counter medications (with your doctor's permission) to treat your symptoms. Your symptoms should resolve within about a week. If they don't, or if they start to get worse instead of better, see your doctor again because you could have developed a secondary infection.

When you have asthma, you need to pay particular attention to your breathing. If you are wheezing and your fast-acting inhaler isn't helping, or breathing becomes painful, seek medical attention right away. If you have an Asthma Action Plan, be sure to follow it.

Sources:

"Asthma and the Flu." People With Health Conditions Flu.gov. US Department of Health and Human Services. 11 Aug 11.

"Flu and People With Asthma." Seasonal Influenza 09 Feb 11. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 11 Aug 11.

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