Asthma and Colds

When you have asthma, any upper respiratory infection -- like a cold or the flu -- can affect your lungs, causing inflammation and airway narrowing. It's important to understand asthma symptoms and cold or flu symptoms and to know which asthma medicines you need to use to prevent asthma flares and asthma attacks.

What's the Difference Between Asthma and Colds?

Asthma is associated with inflammation of the lower airways inside your lungs called the bronchial tubes. Colds result from infection with a virus. Cold viruses mainly affect your nose and throat. These are the upper airways.

You normally take air into your body through your nose and windpipe into your bronchial tubes, which go on to branch into smaller tubes. At the end of these tubes there are tiny air sacs called alveoli that deliver oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the blood as we breathe.

During normal breathing, the bands of muscle that surround the airways are relaxed. Air moves freely. During an asthma attack, three main changes occur that stop air from moving easily through the airways:

  1. The bands of muscle that surround the airways tighten. This makes the airways narrow. This tightening is called bronchospasm.
  2. The lining of the airways becomes swollen or inflamed.
  3. The cells that line the airways make more mucus that’s thicker than normal.

All of these things -- bronchospasm, inflammation, and mucus production -- cause asthma symptoms such as trouble breathing, wheezing, coughing, breathlessness, and difficulty performing activities.

Colds are respiratory infections caused by viruses. Several hundred viruses may cause your cold symptoms. These viruses can also affect your airways, sinuses, throat, voice box, and bronchial tubes.

What Are the Symptoms of a Cold?

Cold symptoms often begin with throat discomfort or sore throat. That discomfort is followed by clear, watery nasal discharge; sneezing; fatigue; and sometimes a slight fever. Postnasal drip from your nose and sinuses can cause you to have a cough.

For the first few days of a cold, your nose is filled with watery nasal secretions. These secretions may become thicker and darker. Dark mucus does not necessarily mean that you have developed a bacterial infection. However, since a cold may trigger your asthma, be especially watchful for symptoms.

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What Symptoms Indicate I May Have a More Serious Infection?

Call your doctor if you notice any of these signs:

  • Fever (with a temperature over 101 F) or chills
  • Increased fatigue or weakness
  • A very sore throat or pain when swallowing
  • Sinus headaches, upper toothaches, or tenderness or pain of the upper cheekbones
  • Coughing up greater amounts of yellow- or green-colored mucus
  • Difficulty swallowing your saliva

Also call your doctor if you have any other symptoms that cause concern, such as the following:

  • Increased shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, or wheezing
  • Symptoms getting worse or remaining unchanged after 7 days
  • Eye pain or swelling and/or vision changes
  • Severe head or facial pain or swelling
  • Neck stiffness or sensitivity to light

What Are the Symptoms of Asthma?

Not every person with asthma has the same symptoms in the same way. Symptoms of asthma may also vary from one asthma episode to the next. They might be mild one time and severe another time.

Asthma does not cause a fever, chills, muscle aches, or sore throat. The most common asthma symptoms include:

  • Frequent coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness

How Can I Prevent Infections That Trigger Asthma?

  • Good hygiene can decrease viral infections. Prevent the spread of infection by making sure you and your family members wash their hands regularly with soap and warm water.
  • Check with your health care provider about receiving a flu shot every year. In addition, discuss the possibility of getting a pneumococcus -- or pneumonia -- vaccine. Pneumococcus is a common cause of bacterial pneumonia, an illness that can be particularly serious in a person with asthma. Depending on your age and any risk factors you may have, you may need two different types of pneumonia vaccines.
  • Sinusitis with asthma can be very serious. Be aware of the symptoms of a sinus infection and report them immediately to your doctor to prevent asthma attacks.
  • Keep breathing equipment clean. Do not let others use your asthma medications or asthma treatment, including your asthma inhaler, asthma nebulizer, and nebulizer tubing and mouthpiece.

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What Can I Do When Asthma Symptoms Get Worse With Colds or Other Infections?

Ask your doctor for a written asthma action plan during your next visit. This plan may suggest that you increase the dosage or frequency of the medications that you already take when a cold causes your asthma to worsen. It may also include adding a prevention inhaler (like a steroid inhaler) when you get a cold even if you aren't having asthma symptoms yet. Your plan will specify when symptoms warrant a call to your doctor. In addition, you should eliminate or avoid environmental factors that may be contributing to the asthma attack such as smoke, allergens, cold air, or chemicals.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on June 02, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: "Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma."

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: "Indoor Environmental Asthma Triggers."

American Lung Association: "Controlling Asthma Triggers."

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