If you have asthma, flu season may come with a lot of anxiety. People with asthma, even a mild case, are more likely to get serious flu complications.
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But you’re not powerless this flu season. Pulmonologist Nirosshan Thiruchelvam, MD, explains how to protect yourself and stay healthy.
If you have asthma, you probably already know your triggers (and how to avoid them). Triggers are the things that make asthma flare-up, including:
But respiratory infections like the flu are major asthma triggers, too. A respiratory infection, whether it’s the flu or a cold, causes inflammation. And asthma is an inflammatory condition. Together, they deliver an inflammatory onslaught that can cause:
“Many viruses can trigger asthma, including rhinoviruses and coronaviruses, which cause respiratory infections,” says Dr. Thiruchelvam. “People with asthma can have a more severe illness from the virus. It also takes them longer to recover.”
Maybe you have asthma that’s mild and intermittent. You might think the flu isn’t a big deal. But that’s not the case. “Even if you only use your inhaler occasionally, you’ll still have more flu complications than someone without asthma,” Dr. Thiruchelvam explains. “This can be surprising to people who have mild or intermittent cases.”
Your peak expiratory flow meter can alert you to problems early during flu season. Dr. Thiruchelvam says that a reduction in peak flow of greater than 20 percent from normal, or from your personal best value, indicates the presence of an asthma exacerbation. Peak flow levels often drop when you come down with the flu — and even when you don’t feel sick. If your peak flow level is low, talk to your healthcare provider. Together, you can discuss management before the flu slams you with symptoms.
“The flu comes on suddenly,” Dr. Thiruchelvam explains. “You might feel fine in the morning, and by afternoon, you feel terrible. Even if you don’t think you’re sick, check your peak flow every day. If it’s low, talk to your doctor. Don’t wait until you notice a problem.”
If you have asthma, you should have an asthma action plan. You and your doctor work together to create this plan, which tells you how to manage your asthma. It may include:
“Your asthma action plan is important every day, whether it’s flu season or not,” says Dr. Thiruchelvam. “Having your asthma under control gives you a better quality of life.”
Good asthma control is your weapon against flu complications. Good control means you won’t have inflamed, irritated lungs that are trying to battle a nasty flu bug.
You and your doctor should update your asthma action plan every 12 months. If you don’t have a current plan, get an updated one.
Take steps to reduce your chance of getting the flu. Protect yourself with these proven methods:
As if asthma and the flu weren’t enough on their own, pregnancy adds another factor into the mix. Some find that their asthma gets worse during pregnancy.
If you’re pregnant, tell your obstetrician about your asthma. Work with your doctors to keep it under control. And get your flu shot. It’s safe — and recommended — for pregnant people.
Flu complications can be serious, but there’s no need to panic. Take steps to protect yourself and stay on top of your asthma. With a little planning and a lot of hand washing, you can stay healthy throughout flu season and beyond.