How Coronavirus Affects Asthma Sufferers
If you are among the roughly 25 million people in the United States who have asthma, you’re already vulnerable to respiratory infections in general, since your lungs are somewhat compromised. Unfortunately, this means you may also be at increased risk for a severe case of COVID-19, the infection caused by the novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 that is sweeping the globe. Learn more about how this virus may affect you so you can be prepared.
Certain health conditions may increase your risk of either contracting COVID-19 or experiencing a more severe infection. This includes moderate-to-severe asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) notes we’re still waiting on published data to support the premise that people with asthma may be more likely to become infected, the pandemic continues to evolve, and more information could become available.
Why you may be at an increased risk of severe illness: according to the CDC, the virus can attack your respiratory tract, including your nose, throat, and lungs. This can trigger an asthma attack. You’re also at elevated risk for developing complications like pneumonia and acute respiratory disease.
Of note, because we are still learning about the disease, the CDC states people with moderate-to-severe asthma might be at increased risk of severe COVID-19. Multiple studies have reached different conclusions, so more research is needed. Other conditions that might raise your risk include high blood pressure, liver disease, and type 1 diabetes.
Research shows strong evidence when it comes to a variety of other conditions, however. The CDC reports people with the following conditions are at an increased risk of severe disease:
- Chronic kidney disease
- Heart conditions
- Sickle cell disease
- Type 2 diabetes
Additionally, if you smoke or are immunocompromised due to an organ transplant, you are considered to be at an increased risk.
There’s no cure or vaccine for COVID-19. So, your best bet is to avoid being exposed to SARS-CoV-2 and contracting an infection to begin with. You’ve probably already heard the advice to embrace frequent and thorough handwashing with soap and water. Other strategies include:
- Staying home and minimizing trips out of the house
- Trying to have at least a two-week supply of food and necessities in your home in case you need to self-isolate (but don’t stock up excessively, since others need access to the same items)
- Avoiding close contact with other people as much as possible, i.e. “social distancing”
- Avoiding contact with people who are sick
- Using alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available
- Avoiding any of your known triggers, so you don’t experience an asthma attack at a particularly inopportune time
It’s also a good idea to regularly clean and disinfect doorknob handles, countertops, faucets, light switches, and other “high touch” places in your home where the virus can lurk. If you receive deliveries or pick up a meal, sanitize all bags and boxes, and move food into a new container to minimize your risk.
What happens if you do get sick, despite all your best efforts to avoid it?
If you start to feel symptoms of a virus, first, keep in mind it may not be COVID-19. The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough, and shortness of breath. But it’s smart to act quickly regardless so you’ll know what’s going on. Call your doctor to discuss the next steps. Depending on where you live, your doctor may be able to give you instructions about what to do or where to go for a COVID-19 test.
If you do test positive, your doctor will give guidance depending on your specific case, which will probably include following your asthma action plan. Ideally, you’ve already put one together to help you manage your condition. An asthma action plan contains information to guide you on how much medication to take or other things to do if you’re experiencing:
- No symptoms, including no coughing or wheezing
- Mild symptoms, such as tightness in the chest, a cough, the early signs of a cold, or exposure to a known trigger
- More serious symptoms, or what the Allergy and Asthma Foundation calls the “danger zone”
Keep taking your meds as prescribed. Let your doctor know if you start to run low on any of your medications, too, including your inhaler. Many insurance companies are waiving refill time limits during this crisis, so it might be smart to refill your drugs even before they get low, if your coverage and doctor permit it.
If you do develop symptoms, don’t stop taking your medicines as prescribed. Some people with asthma may be concerned about reports suggesting that steroids weaken the immune system’s response to COVID-19; however, these reports are still preliminary and are not based on data studying asthma patients specifically. Additionally, experts agree it’s much more important for people with asthma to continue as usual with their controller medications, including steroids, to keep their asthma managed. The AAAAI warns that if you stop taking your controller medication, you could be at risk for an asthma exacerbation, which might require a visit to the emergency department. And unfortunately, at this time, a visit to the ED or even urgent care could significantly increase your chance of being exposed to someone who has a COVID-19 infection.
There’s no denying the coronavirus pandemic is a very serious situation and one that you should monitor closely. At the present, we don’t have evidence of increased infection rates of COVID-19 among people with asthma, according to the AAAAI, although people with asthma who do contract the virus may have a more severe case.
But it’s important that you don’t take any chances with your health. Do your best to protect yourself with social distancing, handwashing, and hygiene measures. Monitor yourself for symptoms and keep in touch with your doctor if anything changes. And while this may sound challenging, try to stay calm. Stress can exacerbate asthma even in ordinary circumstances. Find ways to alleviate it: take a walk outside, play with your dog, call a friend.