Millions of Americans get the flu every year. If you have asthma, getting the flu can also mean more frequent and more severe asthma attacks while you are sick. Here’s what you need to know to protect your health during flu season.
About the Flu
The flu or influenza is a respiratory illness that can be caused by a variety of influenza viruses. The flu is contagious which means it can spread from one person to another.
The flu is considered to be a seasonal condition. Outbreaks are most common in the United States from fall through spring, peaking in January or February.
Every year, millions of people in the United States get the flu. Some people have mild symptoms including fever, coughing, sore throat, runny nose, head and body aches, and fatigue.
Flu symptoms can also be severe and can lead to serious complications including pneumonia and acute respiratory disease. Each year, an average of 36,000 people in the United States die as a result of the flu.
Asthma is a chronic condition that makes breathing difficult. Because the flu is also a respiratory condition, catching the flu can make asthma symptoms worse and can cause flare-ups or asthma attacks.
During an attack, the airways in the lungs become inflamed and swollen and produce extra mucus. At the same time, the muscles around the airways clamp down, making the air passages smaller. This can make breathing difficult and in severe cases can lead to death.
Treatment for the flu begins with preventing infection from the flu virus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone 6 months or older should receive the flu vaccine.
Each year, a special vaccine is created to provide the best match as researchers predict which strains of the flu virus will be most prevalent for the current flu season. Because there are many types of flu virus, getting a flu vaccine one year will not protect from the flu in future years.
The flu vaccine is available in two forms: as a shot and as a nasal mist. If you have asthma you will need to get the vaccine as a shot since the mist is not recommended for people with asthma.
The vaccine in a shot contains dead virus segments that can trigger the immune system to create matching antibodies without any risk of causing the flu. The nasal mist contains attenuated flu virus, which means the virus is weak but still alive.
This kind of vaccine may cause asthma flare-ups and is only recommended for healthy people between the ages of 5 and 49. In either case, your immune system will get a head start to be ready to defend your body when the live (full-strength) flu virus attacks.
The best time to get the flu vaccine is in the fall, or early in the flu season. It can take up to two weeks for the vaccine to prepare your body’s defenses, which means you are still susceptible to the flu during that time.
Because having asthma can make you more prone to pneumonia, people with asthma may also want to get the pneumonia vaccine.
Talk to your healthcare provider to find out which vaccines he recommends. Also talk to your doctor before getting a flu shot if you are allergic to eggs.
You can also take standard precautions to limit your exposure to the flu:
• Avoid people who are sick
• Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer
• Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth
• Stay in shape
If you think you have the flu, talk to your healthcare provider right away, especially if you have asthma.
The flu can be treated with the antiviral drug Oseltamivir (TAMIFLU®), but the treatments are most effective if they are taken within the first two days of getting sick.
Other treatments for the flu include over-the-counter (OTC) remedies to relieve flu symptoms. However, do not give aspirin to children and teenagers who have flu symptoms, especially fever. Aspirin can cause a rare, serious condition known as Reye’s syndrome.
Flu.gov. Asthma and the Flu. Web. September 26, 2011.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2011-2012 Influenza Season: Disease Activity. Web. September 26, 2011.
Mayo Clinic. Asthma: Limit asthma attacks caused by colds or flu. Web. September 26, 2011.
American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. The Flue and Asthma. Web. September 26, 2011.
National Network for Immunization Information. How Vaccines Work. Web. September 26, 2011.
Reviewed September 27, 2011
by Michele Blackberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith