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Flu and People with Asthma

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a lung disease that is caused by chronic inflammation of the airways. It is one of the most common long-term diseases of children, but adults can have asthma, too. Asthma attacks occur when the lung airways become swollen and tighten due to airway inflammation. Asthma attacks can be caused by “triggers” such as airway infections, allergy particles, chemical irritants, and air pollution. During an attack, people with asthma experience symptoms such as wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness, and nighttime or early morning coughing. Often, asthma attacks can be prevented by limiting one’s exposure to triggers and by properly using asthma medications.

People with Asthma Are at Increased Risk of Severe Disease and Complications from Flu

Though people with asthma are not more likely to get the flu, influenza (flu) can be more serious for people with asthma, even if their asthma is mild or their symptoms are well-controlled by medication. This is because people with asthma have swollen and sensitive airways, and influenza can cause further inflammation of the airways and lungs. Influenza infection in the lungs can trigger asthma attacks and a worsening of asthma symptoms. It can also lead to pneumonia and other acute respiratory diseases. In fact, adults and children with asthma are more likely to develop pneumonia after getting sick with the flu than people who do not have asthma. Asthma is the most common medical condition among adults and kids hospitalized with the flu.

If you have asthma, you need to take steps to fight the flu

  • Everyone with asthma who is six months and older should get a flu vaccine to protect against getting the flu.
    • Vaccination is the first and most important step in protecting against influenza. Even if you don’t have a regular doctor or nurse, you can get a flu vaccine.
    • Flu vaccines are offered in many locations including doctors’ offices, clinics, health departments, pharmacies, college health centers and increasingly by a number of employers and public schools.
    • People with asthma should get flu vaccine made with inactivated (killed) flu virus. That kind of flu vaccine (commonly called a ‘flu shot’) is given with a needle, usually in the arm. Persons with asthma should not use the nasal spray “FluMist®” vaccine.
    • Children, adults over 65 years of age, and people who have asthma should also get the pneumococcal vaccine to protect against pneumonia.
    • Pneumococcal infections are a serious complication of influenza infections and can cause death. Pneumococcal vaccine may be given at the same time as influenza vaccine.
  • Take everyday preventive actions to stop the spread of flu:
    • Stay home when you are sick, except to get medical care. Stay away from other people who are sick.
    • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing and throw the tissue away. If you do not have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow or shoulder not your bare hands;
    • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after coughing or sneezing;
    • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth (germs are spread that way); and
    • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill.
  • Follow an updated, written Asthma Action Plan developed with your doctor.
    • Follow this plan for daily treatment to control asthma long-term and to handle worsening asthma, or attacks.
    • If your child has asthma, make sure that his or her updated, written Asthma Action Plan is on file at school or at the daycare center. Be sure that the plan and medication(s) are easy to get to when needed.
  • If you do get sick with flu symptoms, call your doctor and take flu antiviral drugs if your doctor recommends them.
    • Treatment should begin as soon as possible because antiviral drug treatment works best when started early (within 48 hours after symptoms start).
    • Antiviral drugs can make your flu illness milder and make you feel better faster. They may also prevent serious health problems that can result from flu illness.
    • Oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) is an antiviral drug that can be used to treat flu. To get oseltamivir (Tamiflu®), a doctor needs to write a prescription. This medicine fights against the flu by keeping flu viruses from making more viruses in your body.
    • People with asthma should not use zanamivir (Relenza®), a different antiviral drug, because there is a risk it may cause wheezing in people that already have asthma or other lung problems.