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Colds and flu

Colds and flu can be miserable for anyone, but they can also trigger your asthma symptoms.

Coughs, sneezes and a sore throat? Colds and flu can be miserable for anyone, but if you have asthma they can potentially trigger symptoms. These viruses are very common triggers for people with asthma and they're almost impossible to avoid - but there are steps you can take to lower your risk.

Why can they increase your risk of asthma symptoms or an asthma attack?

Although experts have known for some time that colds and flu can raise your risk of having an asthma attack, the exact reason for the link hasn't been well understood. The latest research we have suggests that when people with asthma get a cold or flu, there's a rise in levels of an inflammatory protein in the cells that line the airways. This can set off a range of other inflammatory reactions, including narrowing of the airways, which can lead to an asthma attack.

Can you prevent colds and flu?

Unfortunately, there's no guaranteed way to avoid catching a cold or flu. But it's worth taking simple steps to reduce your risk.

1. Wash your hands

Cold and flu viruses are most often spread when you touch an infected surface, like a door handle, then touch your face. This can transfer the virus into your nose or eyes. Washing your hands frequently with hot water and soap helps to reduce the risk of this happening. And try not to touch your nose or eyes too much. Washing your hands properly is the best way to prevent infection but antiviral hand foams can be helpful, particularly if you're out and about and can't wash your hands.

2. Look after yourself

To support your immune system, eat a varied, balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, exercise regularly and make sure you're getting enough sleep.

3. Consider a flu jab

Speak to your GP or asthma nurse about whether you should have a flu vaccination before the flu season begins each year. This is designed to help protect you against the specific flu viruses predicted to be in the UK in the winter, although it doesn't protect you from all flu viruses. Your doctor or asthma nurse may suggest you have the flu jab if:

  • you take a preventer inhaler
  • you take steroid tablets
  • you've had to go to hospital because of an asthma attack
  • you have another condition or risk factor that means a jab is advisable - the NHS website has a full list of these.

If your GP or asthma nurse recommends the flu jab, you should ideally have it between September and early November, before flu viruses begin to go around. However, it's always worth getting vaccinated after this time – even if there have already been flu outbreaks.

What's the best way to reduce the risk of the trigger affecting you?

Although you can't always prevent colds and flu, you can lower the risk of these viruses triggering an asthma attack. If you've been prescribed a preventer inhaler, take it every day, as prescribed. It helps to control inflammation in your lungs, meaning you're less likely to have an asthma attack even if you do come into contact with a trigger such as a cold or flu virus. Also, have a written asthma action plan. We know people who have an asthma action plan are four times less likely to need to go to hospital with an asthma attack.

There's no cure for colds and flu, and there isn't any benefit for your asthma in taking cold remedies if you're affected. But some cold and flu medicines might make you feel better. If you want to take an over-the-counter medicine or a herbal supplement, speak to your GP, asthma nurse or pharmacist first, as some medicines and herbal treatments aren't safe for people with asthma.

If you think you have flu and you have any concerns, call your GP practice for advice.

Last updated January 2018

Next review due April 2019