What If You Have Asthma & You Get the Flu?

Health Professional

If you follow my shareposts at all, then you are probably aware that I strongly encourage my readers who have asthma to get immunized against the flu every single year. It's recommended by asthma experts and flu vaccination is safe, easy and fairly inexpensive... and certainly well worth it.

But I know that not every person with asthma will opt to have a flu shot each year. It could be you don't believe you'll really catch the flu, that if you do, it won't be all that bad, that you're afraid of the side effects or even that you just don't want to spend the $20 or $25 it costs to get a flu shot. Whatever your reasons for avoiding immunization, chances are that sooner or later, you are going to catch the flu from someone.

So, what do you do if the worst happens and you do come down with the flu?

Facts About the Flu

First of all, let's clear up a few things. There is a reason why flu shots are recommended for people who already have weakened immune systems and respiratory illnesses -- because the flu is a respiratory infection and can strike much harder in someone who has asthma, than it does in someone who doesn't have asthma or any other health issues. In fact, the flu can be life-threatening, in some cases.

Despite many people's beliefs, there is no such thing as "the stomach flu." Influenza is a viral-born illness that affects the respiratory system, not the digestive system. If you're having nausea and/or vomiting, then you likely have some other kind of sickness, not the flu.

According to Flu.gov, the flu most commonly causes symptoms such as:

  • A fever or feeling feverish (although not everyone with the flu has a fever)
  • A cough and/or sore throat
  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • Headaches and/or body aches
  • Chills
  • Fatigue

In some ways, the flu may start out feeling like a bad cold, but it progresses to a more severe illness and lasts longer. And when you have asthma, having the flu on top of it will definitely make it harder to breathe and probably interfere with your usual level of asthma control. This is because the flu causes swelling and inflammation in your already irritated airways.

Signs That You Need to See a Doctor - STAT

Any time someone with asthma comes down with the flu, he or she should see the doctor right away and initiate treatment. But if you have any of the following symptoms, you should definitely not delay in getting medical attention.

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Purple or blue discoloration of the lips
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough

What to Do If You Get the Flu

If you have asthma and get the flu, as I stated above, your first step is to contact your doctor. Meanwhile, until you get there, monitor your asthma symptoms and control very carefully. Be sure you have your rescue inhaler on hand to use as needed. And be diligent about taking your asthma controller medication and allergy medicine exactly as prescribed.

When you see the doctor, an antiviral medicine will probably be prescribed. In people who don't have asthma, experts usually don't recommend an antiviral unless the flu is diagnosed within 48 hours, because it just won't be that effective.

But in people with asthma, there can be enough benefit from the antiviral medicine, even if you start it more than 48 hours after coming down with the flu, to make it worth taking. And it can also help prevent more serious complications of the flu like pneumonia.

In addition, some doctors will recommend that you go ahead and have the flu vaccine too, if you had not gotten it yet this year. It can still help reduce your symptoms to some extent.

Examples of antiviral flu medicines are:

  • Tamiflu (oseltamivir)
  • Flumadine (rimantidine)
  • Relenza (zanamivir)

Prevention Is Always the Key

A yearly flu shot, preferably between October and December, is still your best protection against a serious case of the flu during the winter months. But if you opt out of the flu vaccine, then do everything else you can to prevent the flu:

  • Avoid contact with people who have the flu, or who are frequently exposed to other people with the flu, such as teachers or health care staff.

  • Wash your hands frequently, using warm water and antibacterial soap. Handwashing prevents the spread of germs.

  • If you must come into contact with people who have the flu, then ask your doctor about getting an antiviral medicine as a preventive measure. This is sometimes done.

We are currently in the peak of flu season, so here's hoping you stay healthy all year! But if the worst happens and you do get the flu, then follow the advice in this post to get better as quickly as possible.