Asthma and the effect of viruses
In individuals with established asthma, viruses can trigger acute asthma exacerbations. This is the case most often for individuals whose asthma is severe or poorly controlled. The reason behind this is an imbalance of inflammatory pathways. Cell signaling molecules responsible for keeping inflammation under control are lowered and cell signaling molecules causing inflammation are made in excess. Too much inflammation can damage the body’s normal tissues causing more severe illness.
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Asthma and the novel coronavirus
Specifically, when we examine COVID-19, most people (around 80%) have mild symptoms such as fever and feeling generally unwell. However, around 20% develop more serious symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain and pneumonia and people suffering from asthma have a higher chance of falling in this group. Furthermore, the fatality rate from the disease is 6% for individuals with long term lung conditions (including but not limited to asthma), while those without any pre-existing medical conditions have a rate of 0.9%.
What can you do?
While the risk of catching coronavirus is low in the US at the time of writing, there are several steps you can take to:
Manage your asthma
- Take your preventer inhaler daily as prescribed - This will lower the risk of a virus triggering an asthma attack
- Carry a reliever inhaler with you - This will help to avoid a flare-up of asthma symptoms
- Keep other medications close to you/easy to find - Again this will help to keep your asthma under control.
- Pay attention to what your body is telling you - Rest and drink enough water.
- Seek appropriate medical help if necessary - Get the right information and help when you need.
Avoid catching and spreading COVID-19
- Wash your hands regularly - This should be done with a good lather for at least 20s with soap and water. In between, you can use alcohol-based (at least 60%) hand sanitizers.
- Cover mouth when you sneeze - You can sneeze into a bent arm or use a tissue and dispose of it in a closed bin and then wash your hands.
- Avoid close contact - Avoid shaking hands, hugging and physical contact. Try to stay more than a meter away from others as respiratory droplets (main transmission method) can travel this distance.
- Avoid touching your face - Your hands touch many surfaces throughout the day and can pick up the virus from respiratory droplets settled on surfaces.
- Disinfect surfaces - keep surfaces clean to avoid the spread of the virus.
- If you feel ill seek appropriate medical care - Remember to give a full account of your illness and travel history.
- If you are looking after someone ill wear a mask - Use and dispose of a mask appropriately and practice regular hand hygiene.
- Handle food safely - Handle products especially meats carefully and completely cook food.
- Self-isolation - If you are coming from or have had contact with someone from an area with an outbreak, for example, it may be appropriate to self-isolate. The incubation period of the virus ranges from 1-14 days and is typically 5 days. During this period it may be possible to transmit the virus if you have it so it is sensible to take precautions.
Avoid other respiratory infections such as flu
- Follow the steps under 2) - They are also effective at reducing the spread of flu. Currently, the flu is more rampant than coronavirus in the US.
- Get vaccinated - Unlike the coronavirus for which there is no vaccine yet, you can be protected from flu through seasonal influenza vaccines.
Having a viral infection when you have asthma can make you more vulnerable to having exacerbations of your asthma. It is important to control your asthma and take simple steps to stop viral spread such as washing your hands. This will help with regards to all respiratory infections whether it be COVID-19 or flu. As the coronavirus situation is developing be sure to stay updated and to follow guidelines.