Chest cold and asthma

What’s the Difference Between Asthma and Colds?

Asthma is associated with inflammation of the lower airways inside your lungs called the bronchial tubes. Colds result from infection with a virus. Cold viruses mainly affect your nose and throat. These are the upper airways.

You normally take air into your body through your nose and windpipe into your bronchial tubes, which go on to branch into smaller tubes. At the end of these tubes there are tiny air sacs called alveoli that deliver oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the blood as we breathe.

During normal breathing, the bands of muscle that surround the airways are relaxed. Air moves freely. During an asthma attack, three main changes occur that stop air from moving easily through the airways:

  1. The bands of muscle that surround the airways tighten. This makes the airways narrow. This tightening is called bronchospasm.
  2. The lining of the airways becomes swollen or inflamed.
  3. The cells that line the airways produce more mucus, which is thicker than normal.

All of these factors — bronchospasm, inflammation, and mucus production — cause asthma symptoms such as difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, breathlessness, and difficulty performing activities.

Colds are respiratory infections caused by viruses. Several hundred different viruses may cause your cold symptoms. These viruses can also affect your airways, sinuses, throat, voice box, and bronchial tubes.

Living with


Financial issues and help

Paying for your medicines

Most adults with asthma will need to pay a prescription charge for their medicines.

If you need to take a lot of medicines, paying for each item individually could get quite expensive. You may find it cheaper to get a prescription prepayment certificate. This is where you pay a one-off charge for all your prescriptions over a 3- or 12-month period.

You won’t need to pay for your medicines if you don’t normally pay prescription charges. For example, all under-16s are entitled to free prescriptions.

Read more about prescription costs to find out if you’re entitled to help with your prescription charges. Asthma UK has more about the cost of asthma medicines.


Depending on how severely asthma affects you on a daily basis, you may be entitled to some benefits, such as:

  • Employment and Support Allowance – a benefit paid to people who are not able to work because of ill health or disability
  • Personal Independence Payment – a benefit that helps with some of the extra costs caused by long-term ill health or a disability if you’re aged 16 to 64
  • Attendance Allowance – a benefit for help with the extra costs you may have if you’re 65 or over and have a physical or mental disability, and need someone to help look after you

If you’re on a low income, you may also be entitled to some help with healthcare costs.

Want to know more?

  • Asthma UK: financial support
  • GOV.UK: benefits

Work-related asthma

If you develop asthma because of your work, and this is fully documented by your doctor and your employer, you can make a claim for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit.

This is a weekly amount paid to people with asthma caused by work-related exposure to a specific substance known to be associated with asthma. A list of asthma-causing substances is available from the Health and Safety Executive.

If you want to take legal action against your employer because of occupational asthma, your lawyer must act within 3 years of diagnosis.

Want to know more?

  • Asthma UK: occupational asthma
  • GOV.UK: Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit
  • Money Advice Service: money issues if you’re ill or disabled

Why Do Colds Last Longer When You Have Asthma?!

I was talking to a coworker (who has asthma) who was frustrated that he was STILL sick. He had a cold for three weeks, but still wasn’t feeling better.

He and another coworker had traveled across the country for a work conference. They both came down with a cold at the same time, but the coworker who didn’t have asthma was only sick for 3 days. This coworker with asthma has been sick for over 3 weeks! (Same cold!)

So, why does that happen?

Jewish National Hospital explains it this way:

“Recent research has shown that inflammation of the lining of the airways is the most common feature of asthma. When they are stimulated, certain cells lining the airways release chemical substances (mediators) that lead to inflammation. This causes the airway lining to swell and narrow. The inflammation may last for hours, days or weeks following an episode. Most people with asthma have some degree of inflammation all of the time. Some long-term control medications can help prevent and reduce inflammation.”

I take a controller (or maintenance) inhaler every day to help control the swelling (or inflammation) in my lungs. If I don’t use it every day, I can tell a BIG difference. I wake up coughing at night, I have a hard time exercising without coughing and my chest is always tight. , I need to use more asthma medicine than just a rescue inhaler.

The importance of understanding asthma

When I am helping families learn about asthma, I take a visual aid. I want to show them what the bronchial tubes in the lungs looks like. So, I bring my “normal” bronchial tube (for people who don’t have asthma). It’s an empty paper towel tube covered in hot pink paper with rubber bands around it. The other bronchial tube (for those with asthma) is a short piece of hot pink pool noodle with rubber bands around it and plastic wrap coming out of the middle.

It helps families see the three things that happen with asthma: mucus production (which is supposed to be the plastic wrap coming out of the middle of the tube), swelling (the pool noodle), and the tightening of the bands around the airways – bronchspasm (the rubber bands around the outside of the pool noodle)

I show them the paper towel tube and tell them that’s what they get to breath through. Then I show them the short piece of pool noodle and tell them that’s what those of us with asthma get to breathe through.

When I hold them up side by side, they can see how open the middle of the paper towel tube is. Then they gasp when they see how thick the sides of a pool noodle are (which shows swelling in the lungs). I tell them, remember, “Don’t be a pool noodle!” It’s funny, and it gets them to remember what their lungs look like with the inflammation.

Then I tell them that if you already have swelling in your lungs, and THEN get a cold on top of that, it can be just too much for your lungs. It can lead to coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, tight chest and just plain feeling miserable. And it can drag on for weeks.

Sometimes, a cold can turn into bronchitis or pneumonia.

So, be careful now that cold season is headed our way. Wash your hands, use paper towels on door knobs (avoid those germs!) and get lots of sleep. I also avoid sick people at work and wash my hands after I use the copy machine or touch the refrigerator door hand. (Seriously, you can never be to careful…)

What have you found to protect yourself from getting sick?

Do you feel like your cold drags on forever?

5 Ways to Keep Asthma in Check During a Cold

Here’s how to better protect yourself from getting a cold or the flu, and how to keep your asthma in check if you do get sick.

Start With Cold and Flu Prevention

It’s important for people with asthma to try to prevent catching a cold or the flu in the first place. “If you have asthma, it does not mean you are more likely to get colds and flu, but you want to try hard to prevent them because they can trigger an asthma attack,” says Dr. Neumeyer. “Number one on your list is to get your flu shot every year. The best time to get your flu vaccine is in early fall — say September or October — before flu season starts.”

Though that may sound obvious, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only one-third of adults with asthma get their flu vaccine every year. Keep in mind that while there is also a flu vaccine in nasal-spray form, it’s not recommended for people with asthma because there is some evidence that it can trigger an asthma attack, so it’s best to opt for the traditional shot.

To avoid getting sick, follow simple precautions such as avoiding crowded places, washing your hands frequently, and avoiding people you know who have a cold. “If possible, also try to avoid traveling in airplanes during the cold and flu season,” advises Neumeyer.

Managing Asthma and Colds or the Flu

Unfortunately, the flu vaccine may not cover all flu viruses, and you may still get a cold despite your best efforts. Go on the defensive once a virus is in your system. “The best thing you can do is to have an asthma action plan in place that already anticipates the problem. This is something you should discuss with your doctor before cold and flu season starts,” says Neumeyer.

Here are five ways you can keep your asthma in check when you have a cold or the flu:

  1. Use your peak flow meter more often. Your peak flow meter measures how well your asthma is controlled. Make sure you know how to use it.
  2. Keep track of symptoms like wheezing, cough, and chest tightness. You may need to bump up your controller medications or start using your rescue medications.
  3. Give it a day to see how you feel. Call your doctor in 24 hours if symptoms are getting worse, interfering with daily activities, or waking you up at night.
  4. Look out for asthma red flags. Call your doctor right away if your medications are not helping or your peak flow drops below 50 percent of your personal best.
  5. Take good care of yourself. Stay home, rest, drink plenty of fluids, and keep your nasal secretions moist with an over-the-counter saline nasal spray. Ask your doctor about other over-the-counter medications that may help such as decongestants, analgesics, and expectorants.

If you have asthma, you are not more likely to get a cold or the flu. But asthma and colds or the flu can be a dangerous combination for you, so you need to be ready. Talk to your doctor about flu and cold prevention, get your flu vaccine, and make sure your asthma action plan is in place.

Study finds clue to why colds trigger asthma

The Mail Online reports how “a simple cold can set off a deadly asthma attack: Scientists discover chemical can send the immune system into overdrive”.

It is well known that in people with asthma, respiratory infections such as colds or flu can trigger asthma symptoms, and, in more serious cases, an asthma attack.

This study involved experiments in mice and humans to see exactly why this might be the case. In particular, the researchers wanted to find out how inflammatory processes might play a part.

They found in people with asthma, infection with the common cold virus (rhinovirus) causes an increase in levels of an inflammatory protein called IL-25 in the cells lining the airways.

This sets off a range of inflammatory processes, such as narrowing of the airways, which can cause asthma symptoms.

As the researchers suggest, the findings indicate using a drug to block IL-25 could prevent people with asthma getting worse symptoms if they catch a cold.

This research is in its early stages and further studies will now be needed to develop an IL-25-blocking drug for testing.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Imperial College London.

It was funded by the Medical Research Council, Asthma UK, the National Institute for Health Research, Imperial Biomedical Research Centre and the Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Translational Medicine.

The Mail Online’s reporting of the study was accurate.

What kind of research was this?

This was laboratory, human and animal research that aimed to investigate the role a protein called interleukin-25 (IL-25) plays in triggering worsening symptoms in people with asthma when they catch a cold.

Viral infections such as the common cold (mostly caused by rhinoviruses) are known to be a trigger for worsening asthma symptoms or causing asthma attacks.

IL-25 is a protein involved in inflammatory and autoimmune processes (where the immune system attacks health tissue) in the body and has previously been identified as playing a role in asthma.

This study used laboratory experiments and studies in mice and humans. The results showed how people with asthma express more IL-25, and that infection with rhinovirus can increase levels of IL-25 and other inflammatory molecules.

What did the research involve?

The researchers first studied samples of the cells lining the airways in the lungs (the bronchi) obtained from 10 people with asthma and 10 people without asthma.

They looked at the levels of IL-25 and then looked at what happened when these cells were infected with rhinovirus.

They then followed up these laboratory results with studies in mice and humans. The researchers infected 39 people with rhinovirus – 28 people with asthma and 11 people without asthma – to see what effect this had on the levels of IL-25 in nasal secretions.

They then studied mice to look at the exact mechanisms by which rhinovirus may lead to increased IL-25 and so trigger asthma symptoms.

A mouse model of asthma was used in these experiments. In this model, the mice were sensitised with an allergen once daily for three days via the nose, while some were given a saline control.

The allergen used was RV-OVA, which causes allergic inflammation in the airways similar to that which occurs in people with asthma.

After this sensitisation, some were infected with rhinovirus, while some were not. The researchers then examined the levels of IL-25 and inflammatory cells in the airways.

The researchers followed this up by investigating the effects of an IL-25-blocking antibody in mice.

What were the basic results?

In the first laboratory study, the researchers found the cells lining the airways in people with and without asthma were no different in how much IL-25 they produced when they were not infected with rhinovirus.

After eight hours of exposure to rhinovirus, infected cells showed tenfold greater levels of IL-25 than those not infected. Using allergy tests, the researchers found increased IL-25 expression was associated with increased sensitivity to various allergens.

Their next experiments in people both with and without asthma showed there was no significant difference in the level of IL-25 nasal secretions before rhinovirus infection.

Up to 10 days after infection with rhinovirus, 61% of those with asthma (17 of 28) demonstrated a significant increase in their IL-25 levels.

People without asthma also had a significant increase in IL-25 secretion, but peak levels during infection were higher in people with asthma.

The researchers found the “asthmatic mice” (whose airways had been sensitised by the allergen RV-OVA) had higher IL-25 levels, whether subsequently infected with rhinovirus or not, compared with the “non-asthmatic” mice.

When “allergic” mice were infected with rhinovirus, they had IL-25 levels 28 times higher than asthmatic mice who were not infected. Infection of non-asthmatic mice with rhinovirus also caused an increase in IL-25 levels compared with non-asthmatic, non-infected mice, but at much lower levels.

Further examination of lung tissue from the mice demonstrated the inflammatory response that was occurring in association with IL-25. Using an IL-25-blocking antibody blocked the inflammatory response in the mice’s lungs that occurred after rhinovirus infection.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded that rhinovirus can induce IL-25 production in the lining of the airways, and that this is more pronounced in people with asthma than healthy controls.

In a mouse model of allergic asthma, rhinovirus infection induced IL-25 production, and blocking IL-25 could reduce rhinovirus-induced lung inflammation.


It is well known that respiratory infections such as colds or flu can trigger asthma symptoms in those who have the condition.

This study demonstrates how, in people with asthma, infection with the common cold virus (rhinovirus) causes an increase in levels of the inflammatory protein IL-25 in the cells lining the airways. This sets off an inflammatory process that could be causing the asthma symptoms.

As the researchers suggest, the findings indicate that using a drug to block IL-25 could be a promising way to try to prevent people with asthma getting worse symptoms if they catch a cold.

The research is in its early stages, and further studies will now be needed to develop an IL-25-blocking treatment that shows enough promise to be tested in human trials.

While there is no guaranteed way to prevent catching a cold, people can help prevent the spread of colds by always coughing or sneezing into a tissue, binning it and washing their hands.

Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Website

Links to the headlines

How a simple cold can set off a deadly asthma attack: Scientists discover chemical can send the immune system into overdrive

Mail Online, 2 October 2014

Links to the science

Beale J, Jayaraman A, Jackson DJ, et al.

Rhinovirus-induced IL-25 in asthma exacerbation drives type 2 immunity and allergic pulmonary inflammation

Science Translational Medicine. Published online October 1 2014

Medical Research

Research Archive from 2006

A Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) study has identified why asthmatics are more susceptible to the effects of the common cold which could lead to new treatments for acute asthma and health care savings.

Results of a study by researcher Dr Peter Wark from John Hunter Hospital and colleagues in the United Kingdom* which have been published in the journal Nature Medicine, showed that cells which line the airways of people with asthma are more susceptible to infection with the cold virus.

Researchers found that asthmatic airway cells and immune cells responded poorly to infection with the cold virus. Participants who recorded the greatest worsening of asthma showing increased inflammation, lower lung function and were deficient in the release of antiviral proteins (interferons) in response to infection.

“Our research indicates that asthmatics have a deficient early immune response to cold which is directly related to the worsening of their asthma,” said Dr Wark.

“These findings open up possibilities for numerous new therapeutic targets to either correct this defect or minimise it to reduce the severity of acute virus asthma.”

According to Dr Wark current treatments for acute asthma are limited and few new drugs have been developed in the past 25 years. These findings are exciting as they show a potential new area for investigation and the development of better treatments.

“If we were able to treat this there would be an enormous reduction of hospital admissions which would bring a substantial cost reduction to health services,” said Dr Wark.

Common cold infections can lead to a severe worsening of asthma and accounts for most admissions to hospital with asthma in adults and children.
“It is also possible that recurring viral infections will worsen asthma control, so having an effective intervention that stops it from happening would also stop deterioration.”

Dr Wark and his colleagues at Southampton University and the Imperial College, London, will continue to investigate the mechanism behind this abnormality, to see if it has relevance to other chest diseases where people are prone to the effects of virus infection.

Sniff. Cough. Sneeze.

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Cold weather can be tough on all of us, but if you have asthma, winter can literally take your breath away.

For many people, asthma is harder to control during winter months, for a few reasons. First, the cold, dry air can irritate your airways and cause the muscles inside to spasm. Then there’s all those cold and flu viruses going around. A cold or respiratory tract infection can exacerbate asthma symptoms .

But there are a few things people with asthma can do to keep themselves as healthy as possible. “Simple stuff always makes the biggest difference,” says pulmonologist Emily Pennington, MD.

Here are a few steps she suggests — including some you can start now.

Get your flu vaccine. And for the best protection throughout flu season, get it before the end of October, Dr. Pennington says. She also recommends talking to your doctor about whether you need a pneumonia vaccine.

Limit outside exercise. Even people without asthma sometimes experience shortness of breath when they exercise in cold weather. If you have asthma, indoor activities like taking a fitness class or swimming may be better options.

Sport a scarf. Covering your mouth when you’re outside will help protect your airways by warming the air before you breathe it in.

Invest in a humidifier. Even indoors, the air can be dry, so a humidifier may help ease breathing. Just be sure the reservoirs and filters are clean.

Keep those hands clean. When you wash them, do so for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. Use hand sanitizer when you’re out and about.

Also, keep them away from your face. That’s how we transfer cold and flu viruses, Dr. Pennington says. They get on our hands by touching, say, a door handle, and then into our bodies through our mouth or nose or eyes.

Talk to your doctor before cold and flu season. “Make sure you have your asthma action plan in place,” Dr. Pennington says. “That way, if you do get sick, you know what to do before your symptoms get really severe.”

Yes, Your Asthma Can Get Worse in Cold Weather

Spring may be just around the corner, but Seattleites know that doesn’t necessarily mean warmer weather right away. (Juneuary, anyone?) For people with asthma, this means your condition could be exacerbated by winter’s leftovers even though there isn’t much pollen in the air yet.

Colds and the flu, which are more common this time of year, can also trigger asthma, as can changing weather conditions and exercising in cold weather. Other triggers are indoor allergens like dust and mold that most of us spend more time with while avoiding the rain and dreariness outside.

How to handle cold-weather asthma

The combination of these triggers can spell trouble for someone with asthma, says Marion Pepper, Ph.D., an immunologist who studies asthma and works in the immunology department at the UW School of Medicine.

Pepper also has two daughters, Lucy and Izzy, who have suffered from asthma. She’s seen how their symptoms sometimes worsen in the cold.

“Recently, Izzy had a cold; it was probably some minor virus, but I could see it was starting to tighten up her lungs,” Pepper says.

If you or your child’s asthma symptoms flare up in cold weather, handle it as you would during any other season: Set up a detailed asthma plan with your primary care provider. For Pepper’s daughter, this means having both control and rescue inhalers handy. Make sure your child knows to alert you if their symptoms worsen. Symptoms include things like shortness of breath, chest tightness and wheezing; if symptoms are more severe, people may have trouble talking or sleeping and should immediately seek medical help.

Research shows promise

In her lab, Pepper studies the body’s adaptive immune system, the part of the immune system that learns to recognize threats and remembers how to respond to them. Sometimes, this response is excessive, as when the immune system treats harmless things like pollen or dust as threatening and triggers an immune response that causes the symptoms of allergies or asthma. Pepper hopes that, by learning more about the immune system’s memory, she and her colleagues can prevent the immune system from forming memories that prompt it to attack unnecessarily.

“Maybe if I hadn’t had kids who had asthma, I wouldn’t have been inspired to go into this research and know just how debilitating it can be,” she says.

The future of asthma

Her work could become even more pressing: Asthma has been on the rise, especially in children. Recent research from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that, while asthma deaths are thankfully decreasing, more people are getting asthma. Prevalence of the condition worldwide rose by nearly 13 percent in 2015.

What’s more, asthma symptoms could worsen due to global warming. A warming climate can lead to weather changes, like frequent wind and forest fires, which can trigger asthma; not to mention the effects of air pollution and emerging respiratory viruses.

Luckily, Pepper’s daughters are able to still live happy, active lives even with asthma. She hopes her work will make that reality possible for even more people.

Here’s the understatement of the century millenium: Breathing is a pretty important part of staying alive. As such, it can obviously be terrifying when you have to struggle to catch your breath—but when does that become a sign of asthma?

Asthma currently affects just under 25 million people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with about 6 million of them being children. That means around 18 million adults have the condition. While some have had it since childhood, it’s possible to develop asthma when you’re older, too—and maybe even not know it. “Many people do not realize they have asthma and deal with daily symptoms,” Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network, tells SELF.

First up, a little anatomy refresher: Your airways, which extend between your nose and mouth and your lungs, have the very important job of carrying air in and out of your body, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). These airways can get inflamed in response to triggers like animal fur, pollen, mold, cold air, cigarette smoke, exercise, and respiratory infections like colds, according to the NHLBI. That swelling can then prompt the muscles around your airways to tighten, further restricting your air intake. Your airways may also produce more mucus than they typically do, which ultimately only makes it even harder to breathe.

While these effects can be mild and abate on their own, if they get worse, they can lead to an asthma attack, which can be life-threatening. That’s why knowing you have asthma—and creating a plan for how to treat it—is so important. Although you might imagine that having this condition must be obvious, asthma signs can be surprisingly subtle. Here are seven to keep in mind.

1. You have a cough that never really goes away.

Here’s a pretty cool fact: When an irritant gets into your throat or airways, it stimulates nerves that prompt your brain to make the muscles in your chest and abdomen expel air from your lungs with a cough, according to the Mayo Clinic. Since a sensitivity to irritants can cause asthma symptoms, coughing is a hallmark sign of this condition, Sadia Benzaquen, M.D., a pulmonologist and associate professor in the department of internal medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, tells SELF. In fact, it’s the most common sign of asthma Dr. Parikh has seen people ignore.

After all, coughing is a normal process that doesn’t necessarily mean anything about your health—and even when it does, there are various potential culprits. It makes sense that your mind wouldn’t necessarily jump straight to asthma. But it’s possible to have a cough be your only sign of this, Anastasiya Kleva, M.D., a board-certified allergist at ENT and Allergy Associates NY, tells SELF. If you suddenly take pause and realize you’ve been coughing for several weeks, you need to see a doctor to figure out what’s going on.

2. You experience random bouts of shortness of breath.

There’s nothing strange about experiencing shortness of breath when you get back into the gym after a break. But if you get winded doing normal things, like walking at a typical pace, don’t just chalk that up to needing more exercise. Asthma can cause some extra huffing and puffing when doing low-key activities like household chores, Dr. Parikh says, and it can be subtle enough that it doesn’t seem worrisome at first. “If you frequently have shortness of breath…that is a sign you may have asthma or a heart condition should be investigated,” she says.

3. You have trouble sleeping because you can’t breathe well.

Sure, there are plenty of reasons why you may have difficulty sleeping, but asthma makes it happen in a pretty scary way: “Asthma will cause people to wake suddenly from sleep due to shortness of breath, cough, or wheezing,” Dr. Kleva says. With that said, you could also blame that on something like anxiety rather than asthma.

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