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Swine Flu and Asthma

Experts discuss the risk of swine flu complications faced by asthma patients.

What symptoms should people with asthma look out for?

The symptoms of the swine flu look a lot like symptoms of the regular flu, so it's often hard to tell them apart. In general, watch out for these symptoms:

  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Nasal congestion
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting and diarrhea in some people

In people with asthma, the following breathing symptoms can also develop:

  • Shortness of breath or irregular breathing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Wheezing

Because having asthma increases the risk of serious complications from H1N1, call your doctor right away if you have a high fever or are having difficulty breathing.

Should everyone with asthma get the H1N1 vaccine?

Yes. Just about everyone with asthma should receive the H1N1 vaccine, according to Li. The only exceptions are people who currently have a fever, those with a severe allergy to chicken egg, or who have had a severe reaction after a previous flu vaccination (including a rare neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome).

Don't forget that asthma also poses a higher risk for complications from the seasonal flu. Even so, many people with asthma skip the seasonal flu vaccine. Only about 40% of adults with asthma got vaccinated during the 2006-2007 flu season. The H1N1 flu virus will be included in the seasonal flu vaccine for the 2010-2011 flu season. Until then, however, protect yourself by getting both flu vaccines (remember that the seasonal flu vaccine does not provide immunity against swine flu).

Which vaccine should I get?

If you have asthma, experts recommend that you get the injected H1N1 vaccine, which contains a killed virus, rather than the intranasal vaccine, which contains a live but weakened virus. The live virus in the nasal vaccine could potentially trigger asthma flare-ups in some people.

How is the swine flu treated in people with asthma?

The H1N1 virus can be treated with the same antiviral medications used to treat the seasonal flu, including Tamiflu. However, asthma patients should avoid taking Relenza because of reports that it can cause narrowing of the airways and breathing problems.

Antiviral drugs are most effective when started within the first 48 hours after symptoms begin.  Your doctor may prescribe additional medications for increased asthma symptoms. More serious complications, such as pneumonia, may require a trip to the hospital.

Reviewed on July 14, 2010

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