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Flu (Influenza)

Click for ClinicsThe flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and can lead to death in severe cases. For people with asthma, guarding against the flu is important every year because your lung function can be very compromised if you catch the flu, making your asthma symptoms even worse.

Most healthy people recover from the flu without complications, some people, such as older people, young children, and people with certain health conditions like asthma, are at high risk for serious complications from the flu. Some of the complications caused by the flu include bacterial pneumonia, dehydration, and worsening of existing chronic conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes. Children and adults could also develop sinus problems or ear infections.

People at high risk for complications include people 65 years or older, people with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women and young children. If you are at high risk from complications of the flu, you should consult your health-care provider to learn how to prevent the flu. If you develop flu-like symptoms, seek professional medical help.

H1N1 ("Swine") Flu

H1N1 ("Swine") flu is a new strain and it’s different than the seasonal flu. But, like the seasonal flu, people with asthma are at a greater risk of getting this severe strain, so click on the link below to learn about what you need to know to prevent and prepare. (Note: For the 2010-2011 flu season, the flu vaccine does include protection against the 2009 H1N1 pandemic virus and 2 other flu viruses.) For more H1N1 flu information visit www.flu.gov

Seasonal Flu

Every year the seasonal flu is responsible for causing complications for people with asthma. Getting seasonal flu shot each year is a very effective way to reduce your chances of dealing with complications due to flu symptoms. (Note: For the 2010-2011 flu season, the flu vaccine does include protection against the 2009 H1N1 pandemic virus and 2 other flu viruses.) For more H1N1 flu information visit www.flu.gov

Special Info for ASTHMA Patients

  1. If you have asthma, you should get the flu shot when it is available. Do NOT get the nasal spray vaccine, which could trigger asthma symptoms or an attack.

  2. If you have asthma and get the flu, see a healthcare professional promptly, because you are at greater risk of becoming severely ill with flu complications very quickly.

  3. If you care for children with asthma, get the flu vaccines to protect them.

  4. Priority groups for the flu vaccine are:

    1. Pregnant women
    2. Health care workers and first responder/emergency personnel
    3. People who live with or care for children under the age of 6 months
    4. Children between the ages of 6 months – 24 years old (children under the age of 10 need 2 vaccine doses given 28 days apart)
    5. Adults between the ages of 25 – 64 years with chronic health disorder/compromised immune system

  5. The vaccine is safe. If you have asthma, the risks are far greater not getting the vaccine.

Special Info for ALLERGY Patients

If you have a severe (life-threatening) allergy to eggs, or to any other substance that could be in the flu vaccine (i.e. latex, gelatin, etc.) you should check with your physician before receiving any flu vaccine. If a person reports a severe (anaphylactic) allergy to latex, vaccines supplied in vials or syringes that contain natural rubber should not be administered, unless the benefit of vaccination outweighs the risk of an allergic reaction to the vaccine. For latex allergies other than anaphylactic allergies (e.g., a history of contact allergy to latex gloves), vaccines supplied in vials or syringes that contain dry natural rubber or natural rubber latex can be administered.

Allergic reactions (including anaphylaxis) after vaccination procedures are rare. Only one report of an allergic reaction after administering hepatitis B vaccine in a patient with known severe allergy (anaphylaxis) to latex has been published. ACIP General Recommendations

For more information on egg allergies and flu vaccines visit these links:

Common Flu Symptoms

The flu usually starts suddenly and may include these symptoms:

  • Fever (often very high 101 or above)
  • Headache
  • Extreme tiredness, chills
  • Constant cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches in bones and/or musles

Diarrhea and vomiting also can occur but are more common in children. These symptoms are referred to as "flu-like symptoms." A lot of different illnesses, including the common cold, allergy symptoms and asthma symptoms can sometimes be similar and confusing. Always consult with your doctor to make a proper diagnosis.

Emergency Flu Symptoms

There are some “emergency signs” that require immediate medical care. In children, emergency signs include:

  • Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing
  • Blue skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Not waking up or not being conscious
  • Being irritable and unconsolable 
  • Flu-like symptoms seem to improve but return with worse fever and cough
  • Fever with a rash

For adults, emergency signs include:

  • Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing
  • Pain in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting

How Does the Flu Spread?

The flu spreads in respiratory spraying from coughing and sneezing. It usually spreads from person to person, though occasionally someone could become infected by touching something with virus on it and touching their mouth or nose. Adults may be able to infect others 1 day before getting symptoms and up to 7 days after getting sick. So it’s possible to give the flu before you know you’re sick, as well as while you are sick.


The single best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu vaccine (a flu shot) each fall. Who should get a flu shot every year:

  • Adults 50 years or older
  • All children aged 6-23 months
  • People of any age with chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, heart or lung disease, transplant recipients, or persons with HIV/AIDS)
  • All women who will be pregnant during the influenza season
  • People in nursing homes
  • Health-care workers involved in patient care
  • Caregivers of people in high-risk groups mentioned above

Also, a few antiviral drugs are approved for prevention of the flu. These are prescription medications, and a doctor should be consulted before they are used. In addition, there are some easy things you can do to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses like the flu:

  • Cover your nose/mouth with a cloth or tissue when you cough/sneeze—throw it away after use
  • Wash hands often with soap and water, especially after coughing/sneezing. If you don’t have access to running water, use an alcohol-based hand cleanser
  • Stay away from people who are sick
  • If you get the flu, stay home from work or school
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. This is how germs often spread

Diagnosing the Flu

There are tests that determine if you have the flu if tested within the first 3 days of illness. Also, a doctor’s exam may be needed to tell whether you have an infection that is a complication of the flu.

Treating the Flu

Antiviral Medications - Some antiviral drugs are approved for treatment of the flu. They are prescription medications, and a doctor should be consulted before the drugs are used. Antiviral treatment lasts for 5 days and must be started within 2 days of illness so if you get flu-like symptoms, seek medical care early on.

Other - If you get the flu, get plenty of rest, drink a lot of liquids, and avoid using alcohol and tobacco. Also, you can take medications to relieve the symptoms of the flu (but never give aspirin to children or teenagers who have flu-like symptoms, particularly fever).

"Swine" Flu (the H1N1 Strain)

Information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that many of the signs and symptoms of swine flu are similar to those experienced by people with seasonal allergies. If your runny nose, itchy and watery eyes, sore throat, and other common allergy symptoms are combined with an unusually high fever (100 degrees or higher), chills, severe headache, or significant aches and pains, you could have some type influenza, including swine flu.

Swine flu symptoms are similar to typical flu symptoms and to common allergy effects as well. As an asthma and allergy patient, you must be particularly vigilant to avoid contact with people who might have any strain of influenza, including swine flu.

You can take several simple precautions to protect yourself and the members of your family from contracting influenza. The CDC recommends taking the following steps:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth
  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people
  • If you get sick with influenza, CDC recommends that you stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them

If you think your allergy symptoms might be indicative of something more severe, including any strain of influenza, you should visit your primary care physician for a diagnosis or treatment recommendation. Further, if you become ill and experience any of the following warning signs, seek emergency medical care:

Emergency warning signs that need urgent medical attention for children include:

  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Not waking up or not interacting
  • Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
  • Fever with a rash

Emergency warning signs that need urgent medical attention for adults include:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting

For more information, including up-to-date statistical data on the swine flu situation in the United States, please visit http://www.cdc.gov/swineflu/.


SOURCE: This information should not substitute for seeking responsible, professional medical care. First created 1995; fully updated 1998; most recently updated 2009.
© Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) 
Editorial Board

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