Navigating Lung Infections With Asthma

Among my asthma skills is apparently having a lung infection and not knowing it (not one of my finer talents, clearly!). This has happened to me twice, seven years apart—and I assume those seven years are why I had, again, no idea it was happening the second time, too. That second time was just a couple of weeks ago, so I’m pretty fresh on this topic. I’ve very recently Googled for myself many a question about lung infections!

What is a lung infection and how do they happen?

Lung infections are the result of a bacteria or virus getting into your lungs and causing problems! Colds and influenza (the flu) are common viral respiratory infections, which can cause increased problems if you have asthma.1

Usually when we think of a lung infection, though, we think of acute bronchitis and pneumonia, the two main types of lung infections. Often, these infections are caused by viruses but can also sometimes be caused by bacterial infections.2

What are the symptoms of a lung infection?

When I’ve had lung infections (acute bronchitis), I’ve felt worse than when I have a cold. My most recent lung infection resulted in just being persistently short of breath, even at rest, and really tired, but a lot of other symptoms to speak of! I have also had persistent fevers with a previous lung infection (that I didn’t recognize as a fever—oops), although my most recent lung infection a few weeks ago, I only spiked a fever briefly in urgent care (that I know of, anyways).

For me, worsening of asthma that doesn’t respond to normal treatment is probably my biggest indicator of a lung infection. Symptoms of a lung infection can include:2

How will a doctor determine if you have an infection?

Your doctor may diagnose a lung infection based on a clinical examination—listening to your lungs, taking your temperature, and hearing about your symptoms. In other cases, they will do additional tests to confirm your infection.

During my recent urgent care visit that resulted in a diagnosis of a lung infection, my temperature and pulse oximetry (blood oxygen levels) were checked regularly and I had blood work done (though I think mainly to rule out a blood clot in my lung), as well as a chest x-ray. Sometimes CT scans are done as well.3

Other tests that may determine if you have a lung infection include arterial blood gas tests (blood tests taken from an artery rather than a vein), looking at the inside of your lungs with a bronchoscope, lung biopsy (taking a piece of tissue from your lung), thoracentesis (taking fluid from around the outside of the lung)—these tests are less commonly done.3

How are lung infections treated?

If you have asthma, you’ll likely be instructed to continue taking your regular asthma medication or increase the dose of your asthma medications. When I went to urgent care, I was already taking Ventolin by inhaler or neb every 4ish hours, had started prednisone a few days prior, and had increased other meds prior to starting prednisone. So there wasn’t a lot left to do in that department.

Antibiotics are not always indicated for a lung infection, as it depends on the cause of the infection. Antibiotics will help with a bacterial infection, but they will not treat a viral infection. With some resistance to the urgent care doc, I was prescribed—and took—antibiotics for my infection, not knowing if I actually needed them. I did begin improving after about 3 days on the antibiotics.

The main treatment for a viral infection is fluids and rest. These are also good recommendations for a bacterial infection, alongside antibiotics. In the past, I also was told to take a fever reducer (Advil or Tylenol) every 4 hours for two days.

Getting better!

Usually, a lung infection will last no more than 10-14 days, similar to a common cold. A viral lung infection may be contagious for as long as a week—if you have a bacterial lung infection, after 24 hours on antibiotics you should no longer be contagious.2

By following your doctor's instructions, getting lots of rest and drinking fluids (I went with gatorade to reduce the muscle cramping from all the Ventolin I was taking!), you should begin to feel relief from your lung infection symptoms. (Even though being mostly holed up in my room for nearly a week being exhausted wasn’t super fun!)

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