Asthma is a common medical condition that inflames the airways in your lungs, and can make it difficult to breathe.
One in 13 people in the United States has asthma, and it’s the country’s leading chronic disease in children.
When you have asthma, your lungs are hyperresponsive to triggers that irritate them.
Asthma triggers can include environmental factors like air pollution, changes in weather, pet dander, and dust mites.
Triggers can also be changes within your body, like the effects of strenuous exercise or contracting a viral respiratory illness like the flu, the common cold, or bronchitis.
Once your lungs are irritated by a trigger, the airways inside become inflamed, swollen, and narrow.
The muscles in your chest can spasm and tighten, and your lungs can begin to produce excess mucus, making it difficult to breathe.
As a result, patients may experience coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest pain. As asthma symptoms worsen, they can develop into an asthma exacerbation, also called an asthma attack.
Most asthma attacks will reverse with the appropriate medical treatment.
In some more severe cases, however, patients require emergency medical care and even hospitalization before finding relief. When left untreated or inappropriately treated, severe asthma can be life-threatening.
COVID-19 is a highly contagious respiratory infection that is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2.
Most people infected by COVID-19 develop mild to moderate symptoms that go away without needing clinical care. For some patients, however, COVID-19 becomes a severe illness that requires hospitalization and intensive respiratory support to treat.
Severe COVID-19 is a life-threatening disease; according to one study, more than 50% of COVID-19 patients who required intensive care ultimately died from the disease.
Researchers believe that certain underlying medical conditions increase the likelihood of severe COVID-19 outcomes.
Although some healthcare organizations disagree with the claim, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently suggests that if patients have moderate to severe asthma, they are at an increased risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19.
In this article, I will explore the relationship between asthma and COVID-19, review what to do if you think you have both conditions, and the risks of COVID-19 for people with asthma.
I’ll also talk about how both conditions are treated, and discuss the steps you can take to help prevent yourself from becoming seriously ill.
Finally, I’ll discuss when you should see a doctor, and how K Health can help.
Asthma & COVID-19
Asthma is a chronic condition that affects the airways in the lungs and can lead to wheezing, coughing, chest pain, and difficulty breathing.
It is among the most common ailments in the world — affecting 25 million people in the United States alone.
Depending on the severity of their condition, asthma patients can experience symptoms that range from mild and intermittent to daily and debilitating.
Healthcare providers aren’t sure what causes asthma, but we know that the condition can flare when people encounter triggers that aggravate their immune system or irritate their lungs.
Everyone’s triggers are different, but the most common include:
- Tree pollen and other substances that cause seasonal allergies
- Changes in weather patterns or sudden exposure to cold air
- Pet dander, dust mites, or mold
- Fumes, vapors, gases, or air pollution
- Cigarette or wood smoke
- Strenuous exercise
- Respiratory viruses
COVID-19, sometimes referred to as the coronavirus, is an infectious disease that primarily impacts the lungs and can trigger an immune response that can lead to inflammation in other parts of the body.
Most people recover from COVID-19 infections, but some have a much harder time healing from the disease.
Evidence suggests that older adults and those with underlying conditions are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill, requiring emergency care, or experiencing death due to COVID-19.
Some of the underlying conditions that increase adult patients’ risk of developing more serious COVID-19 infections include:
- A history of smoking
- A history of substance abuse
- A weak or compromised immune system
- Cardiovascular disease
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Cystic fibrosis
- Down syndrome
- Interstitial lung disease
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Pulmonary hypertension
- Sickle cell disease
- Transplant recipient
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology states that there is no evidence to suggest that patients with asthma are at high risk of severe COVID-19.
Still, the CDC currently says that patients with moderate or severe asthma may experience increased disease severity if they contract COVID-19.
Data suggests that asthma patients may see re-emergent or worsening asthma symptoms after healing from a COVID-19 infection.
What to Do If You Think You Have COVID-19 with Asthma
If you have underlying asthma and believe you may have contracted COVID-19, there are important things you can do to keep yourself and others safe from harm.
If you have reason to suspect that you have COVID-19 or have been exposed to COVID-19, avoid close contact with others by staying home and self-isolating until you can talk to a healthcare provider or a minimum of 10 days.
If you must leave the house to get care or to take a COVID-19 test, wear a face mask and practice social distancing to ensure that you do not inadvertently spread the disease.
Taking a COVID-19 test is essential to ensure that you take the proper steps to protect yourself and others from the disease.
Many testing sites supply COVID-19 tests at low cost or free of charge to patients who believe they may have the condition.
Call your doctor or your region’s public health hotline to find a testing site that is close to you.
If you live with anyone, they should get tested, too.
However, bear in mind that testing is just a snapshot in time and if done too early or too late in the course of the disease, there can be false negatives so be sure to discuss the results with your doctor.
Follow your asthma action plan
Uncontrolled asthma can become life-threatening, even without COVID-19.
Continue managing your asthma symptoms by following the treatment plan that your doctor recommends for you.
Avoid environmental triggers that might make your lungs reactive, and make sure that you have at least 30 days of asthma medicines incase you need to quarantine.
Do not adjust your dosages or stop taking your medications unless a doctor instructs you to do so.
When to see a doctor
Call your doctor right away if you have asthma and believe you have been exposed to COVID-19.
They can help you find a testing site and make sure that you have an asthma action plan in place.
If at any point you experience difficulty breathing or speaking, begin to feel confused, notice a blue tinge to your lips or face, or feel chest pain or pressure, you may require emergency care.
Call 9-1-1 and let them know you have COVID-19 so they can prepare themselves before treating you.
If you decide to drive to the emergency room yourself, call the hospital before you arrive to let them know that you are on your way,
Risk of Severe Illness from COVID-19 in People with Asthma
Public health organizations are currently at odds over whether patients with asthma symptoms are at a high risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
According to the World Health Organization, researchers initially assumed patients with asthma had a higher chance of becoming seriously affected by a coronavirus disease, in part because respiratory infections like influenza tend to trigger asthma attacks.
However, as new evidence has emerged, the relationship between asthma and COVID-19 has become less straightforward.
The latest information suggests that patients with asthma are not at a higher risk for increased severity of COVID-19 when compared to the general population.
But, researchers do believe that asthma symptoms may become exacerbated as a result of an infection with COVID-19
As of now, the CDC still lists moderate to severe asthma as an underlying condition that can lead to more severe COVID-19 cases.
Treatment of COVID-19 When You Have Asthma
Researchers are still studying COVID-19, how it affects patients, and how best to treat the disease.
If you have COVID-19, you may experience symptoms like:
- High fever or chills
- Persistent cough
- Congestion or runny nose
- Loss of smell or taste
- Muscle aches
- Shortness of breath
- Skin rash
- Sore throat
- Upset stomach or nausea
- Vomiting or diarrhea
If you are experiencing these symptoms and have tested positive for COVID-19, isolate yourself at home, except to get medical care.
Always wear a mask around other people, including anyone with whom you live.
For most patients with mild or moderate COVID-19, the best treatment includes plenty of rest, staying hydrated with liquids, and taking over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) when appropriate.
In addition, continue taking your asthma medication as directed by your doctor, and avoid triggers that could exacerbate your symptoms further.
In some cases, COVID-19 can become life-threatening.
Emergency symptoms to watch out for include:
- A grey or bluish tinge to the lips, face, or nail beds
- Difficulty speaking or sleeping because you cannot catch your breath
- Feeling as though you have to struggle or strain to breathe
- Inability to stay awake
- Mental fogginess or confusion
- Sudden, intense pain
- Sudden numbness in your arm, face, or leg
- Uncontrollable bleeding
- Uncontrollable vomiting or diarrhea
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, call 9-1-1 or go to your nearest hospital for immediate emergency care.
Call ahead and tell them you have COVID-19 so that they can appropriately prepare for your arrival.
Preventing COVID-19 with Asthma
If you have asthma and are concerned about COVID-19, the best thing you can do is reduce your risk of exposure.
Wear a mask
Wearing a mask is an easy, low-cost way to reduce your exposure to COVID-19.
That’s because COVID-19 is a disease that’s spread when the respiratory droplets generated when someone breathes, talks, or coughs land in someone else’s nose, mouth, or eyes.
When you and others wear masks, it prevents droplets from escaping or spreading to others, thereby reducing disease transmission.
Avoid crowded places
According to the World Health Organization, you are more likely to contract COVID-19 if you are spending time in:
- Indoor and particularly poorly ventilated environments
- Crowded places
- Areas where people spend a long time near one another
When enough people gather, it increases the chance that someone will spread the disease through respiratory droplets.
Avoiding crowds and indoor areas can help prevent you from getting ill.
The single best thing you can do to prevent yourself from getting COVID-19 is to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
COVID-19 vaccines are safe, approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and highly effective at preventing a COVID infection from becoming severe or life-threatening.
If you are interested in receiving a vaccine and aren’t sure where to locate one, call your doctor or your local health department.
They can help you find your closest vaccination clinic and explain how to make an appointment.
When to See a Doctor
Asthma can evolve with age, so it’s crucial for patients with symptoms of asthma to have regular medical appointments so that they can continue to keep their condition monitored and under control.
If you are concerned about your asthma or would like to learn more about treatments, call a healthcare provider and make an appointment to talk through your options.
If you believe you have COVID-19 and need to get tested, or you have a confirmed case of COVID-19, call your doctor for medical advice.
They’ll help you identify your appropriate next steps, recommend treatments that can keep you as comfortable as possible, and tell you about any symptoms you should watch for.
If at any point you are struggling to breathe, speak, or sleep because of asthma or COVID-19, or if you feel confused, have chest pain, or see a bluish tint to your lips, face, or nails, you may require emergency care.
Call 9-1-1 and explain that you have COVID-19, or go to your nearest hospital to receive immediate medical attention.
Call ahead so that they can prepare to treat you.
How K Health Can Help
Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?
Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed, text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.
Frequently Asked Questions
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COVID-19 and Asthma: What Patients Need to Know. (2021). https://www.aaaai.org/Tools-for-the-Public/Conditions-Library/Asthma/covid-prevent
Asthma and COVID-19: scientific brief, 19 April 2021. (2021). https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/who-2019-ncov-sci-brief-asthma-2021.1
Predictors of mortality in patients with severe COVID-19 pneumonia - a retrospective study. (2021). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33966261/
COVID-19: Symptoms and Care (Date unknown). https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/covid/covid-19-symptoms-chronic-health-risks.page
If you get COVID-19 and have asthma. (2021). https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/triggers/coronavirus-covid-19/covid-19-and-asthma/#Asthma
Asthma Facts and Figures (2021). https://www.aafa.org/asthma-facts/
2019 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) Data. (2019). https://www.cdc.gov/asthma/nhis/2019/data.htm