More than 25 million Americans are living with asthma, 19 million of whom are adults. Management of your asthma may vary slightly from another person depending on the type of asthma you have. However, protecting yourself from contracting common lung infections caused by bacteria, viruses and fungi is something every asthma patient must do, regardless of your asthma type. Asthma and pneumonia are two diseases that affect your lungs and can share some symptoms such as experiencing shortness of breath, coughing, or having an increased pulse and breathing rate. Understanding pneumonia, how people with asthma have an increased risk for developing pneumonia, and how to prevent getting pneumonia are important aspects of managing your asthma.
What is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is a type of lung infection that can be either viral or bacterial. It is often spread via coughing, sneezing, touching or even breathing. The infection causes the lung’s air sacs (alveoli) to become inflamed and fill up with fluid or mucus. This makes breathing more difficult and may reduce oxygen levels in the blood, which can be fatal.
Viral pneumonia can be caused by viruses that infect the upper respiratory tract, such as the flu in adults or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in children. Although most viral pneumonias are not serious and last a shorter time than bacterial pneumonia, it can be very serious for people living with asthma and other lung diseases.
The most common type of bacterial pneumonia is called pneumococcal pneumonia which can occur on its own or after you’ve had a cold or the flu. It occurs when Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria spreads from person to person through coughing or close contact. When the bacteria reach your lungs, symptoms of pneumococcal pneumonia can come on quickly and may include chest pain from difficulty breathing or coughing, excessive sweating, a cough with phlegm that persists or gets worse, a high fever with shaking chills and fatigue. Certain symptoms, like cough and fatigue, can last for weeks or longer. In serious cases, pneumococcal pneumonia can even put you in the hospital and be fatal. More information on what causes pneumonia can be found here.
Why Should I Worry About Pneumonia?
People with asthma have a higher risk of developing pneumonia due to previous lung damage or weakness of the lung tissue caused by asthma. In fact, pneumonia is a leading cause of hospitalization in children and adults. How your body responds to pneumonia depends on which type of infection you have, your age and overall health. While anyone can get pneumonia, people living with asthma are more likely to develop pneumonia after getting sick with the flu than people without asthma. Adults 65 or older living with asthma have a 5.9 times greater risk than their healthy counterparts of contracting pneumococcal pneumonia. This is because as you get older, your body’s immune system naturally weakens making it harder for our bodies to fight off infections. It can also take you longer to recover and you are more likely to develop serious complications. Assess and understand your risk for getting pneumococcal pneumonia by taking our quick risk assessment.
How Can I Reduce My Risk of Getting Pneumonia?
There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of getting pneumonia.
Get Vaccinated. Getting vaccinated is crucial to protecting your health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends pneumococcal vaccination for adults 65 and older. Medicare covers pneumococcal vaccines for adults 65 and older at no cost. It is recommended that adults 19-64 years old who smoke get vaccinated as well. At your next appointment with your asthma specialist or your primary care physician, ask them about the pneumococcal vaccination. If you are a medical provider, don’t miss the opportunity to recommend this vaccination for your patients as appropriate. According to a recent study on pneumococcal pneumonia vaccinations in high-risk adults, on average, had up to five encounters with healthcare providers which did not result in receiving a pneumonia vaccination.
Stay healthy by practicing good health habits. Respiratory infections such as a cold or flu can cause asthma symptoms and flare-ups, and the flu can increase your chances of getting pneumonia. A few ways to prevent getting sick is to:
- Avoid sick people
- Wash your hands with soap and water often
- Clean surfaces that are touched most often such as door knobs, light switches, etc.
- Stay in smokefree spaces. If you smoke, make a plan to quit.
Keep your asthma well-controlled by practicing good asthma self-management skills. An important part of managing asthma is seeing your healthcare provider every 6 – 12 months, or more often if you have symptoms, to monitor asthma and adjust your treatment plan as necessary. Also, creating and regularly updating your asthma action plan can help you stay on track with managing your asthma. Monitoring your asthma symptoms daily, avoiding your asthma triggers, and taking your asthma medicines as directed are all part of the self-care skills you need to implement daily to stay in control.
- Talk to your doctor at your next visit to see if the pneumonia vaccine is right for you by asking our “Five Top Pneumonia Questions For Your Doctor”.
- Learn more about asthma management by taking Asthma Basics and downloading our Pathway to Managing Your Asthma infographic.
- Create an Asthma Action Plan.
Blog last updated: August 29, 2023