The Link Between Asthma and the Common Cold
When sneezing becomes wheezing, it could mean you have underlying asthma. Learn how colds and other infections can trigger asthma.

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Picture of woman sneezing The Link Between Asthma and the Common Cold

For some adults and children, colds can trigger asthma symptoms, like wheezing. Up to half of people diagnosed with asthma have wheezing along with their cold symptoms. Cold symptoms also linger longer and can become more serious in people with asthma. Colds and other upper respiratory tract infections are the most common asthma trigger, and a frequent cause of emergency room visits for asthma.

Asthma doesn't have to complicate the common cold. With the right medications and a good asthma action plan, a cold can come and go without a doctor or ER visit.

How can my doctor help?
See your doctor if you think you have asthma, even if you wheeze once in a while or only when you have a cold. Asthma can get worse without warning.

If you know you have asthma, and colds tend to make your asthma worse, your doctor may help. Medications can control asthma symptoms and even prevent them from occurring. Your doctor may prescribe:

  • A quick relief medicine. This is an inhaler medication that you take when you have symptoms. It can stop an asthma attack from getting worse.
  • A controller medicine. This is medication used to prevent an asthma attack. It is often an inhaled corticosteroid. You take your controller medicine every day, even when you don't have symptoms.

If you are already on these medicines and asthma symptoms still get out of hand, it may be time for you and your doctor to revise your asthma action plan. Everyone with asthma should have an action plan, which is a set of instructions on what to do based on your symptoms and peak flow reading. The peak flow meter is a handheld device that you blow into to determine how well you can move air out of the lungs. Peak flow results, plus your symptoms, give you a heads-up that your asthma is getting worse.

How can I tell the difference between asthma symptoms and cold symptoms?
Colds are infections in the nose and throat. Symptoms usually begin abruptly and consist of:

  • Runny nose with clear mucus
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue

There may also be a slight fever.

Asthma is a disease of the lungs. The hallmark of asthma is wheezing, a high-pitched whistling sound when you breathe. Wheezing is due to air moving through narrowed airways. Not all people with asthma wheeze. Other asthma symptoms may be:

  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath

Often, cold and asthma symptoms overlap. Call your doctor if you have any asthma symptoms for the first time.

Don't ignore your wheezing during a bout of sneezing. Asthma should be properly diagnosed and treated.

By Louis Neipris, MD, Staff Writer
Created on 02/23/2011
Updated on 03/02/2011
Sources:
  • Hendley JO. The common cold. In: Goldman L, Aussielo D, eds. Goldman: Cecil Medicine, 23rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2007.
  • American Lung Association. Asthma triggers.
  • Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Viral infection and asthma.
  • National Institutes of Health. Expert panel report 3 (EPR-3): Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of asthma.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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