Sinusitis/Upper respiratory infections/Infections

Viral Infections (Common Cold)

The most common trigger of asthma symptoms in young children is a viral respiratory infection, also known as the common cold.1 Nearly 80% of asthma attacks in children and adults are related to a viral infection.2

Cold symptoms are familiar to most people: fever, cough, runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat, headache and muscle aches.3 People with asthma do not seem to have colds more often than people without asthma.2 However, colds hit them harder. The cold lasts longer and the symptoms are worse. No one knows exactly why this is. One theory is that people with asthma fight colds differently.2

Allergies, if they are present, can make a cold worse too.2 Children with allergic asthma who catch a cold are more likely that children with non-allergic asthma to lose control of their asthma. Airways that have been damaged by allergens are more vulnerable to viruses.2 The opposite also is true: a viral infection can make the airways more sensitive to allergens and irritants. In both cases, a person is much more likely to have an asthma attack.

Viral infections have an important role in developing asthma. Very young children who wheeze when they get a cold are more likely than non-wheezers to have asthma when they are 6 years old.2

How common are colds?

In the United States, there are one billion colds each year.4 Colds are the third most common diagnosis for doctor’s visits.3 Children get six to eight colds per year.5 Adults average two to three colds.6 Colds are most common during the winter and the rainy seasons.4

What can I do to reduce my risk of getting and spreading a cold?

The viruses that cause colds are mainly passed from person to person by sneezing, coughing, and nose blowing.3

  • Frequent hand washing helps to prevent the spread of viruses that cause colds.3 You should wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing, and preparing or eating food.6 Wash your hands for 15 to 30 seconds using soap and water.6 Studies have shown that antibacterial and non-antibacterial soap work equally well.3 Dry hands with a paper towel, rather than a multi-use cloth towel. If you cannot wash your hands, using hand sanitizer is a good alternative.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth to avoid infecting yourself with a virus you may have picked up.6
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough.6 Throw out the tissue right away. If no tissue is handy, sneeze or cough into your elbow rather than your hands.
  • Limit your exposure to colds as much as possible.6 Avoid close contact with people you know are sick. If you can, choose child care that offers smaller group sizes.4
  • Disinfect sink handles, countertops, shared computer keyboards, and door nobs.4,6 Cold viruses can live on surfaces for several hours.6

Many people are interested in home remedies to prevent or cure the common cold. A few studies have shown benefits of some of these.3

  • Nasal saline irrigation: Rinsing the sinuses with a salt water solution has been shown to decrease illness and nasal mucus. Children who used a salt water rinse needed less medication and missed fewer days of school.
  • Probiotics: Children who consumed the helpful bacteria found in yogurt or dietary supplements missed fewer days of day care and were less likely to have a fever, cold, runny nose, or need antibiotics.
  • Vitamin C: Children who took vitamin C before becoming sick had fewer symptoms. Colds cleared up 8% faster in adults who took vitamin C.
  • Zinc: In children, taking zinc has been shown to reduce colds, school absence, and antibiotic use. In adults, taking zinc reduces cold symptoms and length. Intranasal zinc is not recommended, because it may cause a permanent loss of smell.
  • Garlic: One small trial showed that adults who took a garlic supplement had fewer colds.

Should I get vaccinated against the flu?

The flu is a different type of viral infection than the common cold. The symptoms often overlap, but are usually more severe if you have the flu.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevent recommend that people older than 6 months with asthma get vaccinated against the flu.7 People with asthma have a higher risk of complications if they get the flu. The flu can trigger asthma attacks and worsen asthma symptoms. People with asthma who get the flu are more likely to also get pneumonia.

The flu shot has been used safely in people with asthma for a long time.7 It is approved for use in people ages six months and older, with and without asthma. The nasal spray flu vaccine is newer. The safety of the nasal spray flu vaccine in people with lung disease has not been established. The nasal spray is not recommended for children ages two to four years who have asthma or who have had wheezing in the past 12 months. People of any age with asthma are more likely to wheeze after taking the nasal spray flu vaccine.

What should I do if I get a cold?

If you do get a cold, follow your asthma action plan. Use your peak flow meter to monitor your lung function.

Call the doctor if:

  • You have trouble breathing.
  • Your asthma symptoms worsen.
  • You develop a chest cold or bronchitis
  • You notice a change in the amount or color of your phlegm
  • You think you might have the flu. Your doctor may be able to give you medications to help.

Colds get better on their own, usually within ten days.3 Available treatments relieve the symptoms rather than fight the infection.3,4

  • Drink adequate fluids.
  • Rest.
  • Avoid second hand smoke.
  • Do not give children younger than 4 years cold medications. Cold medications with pseduoephedrin, phenylephrine, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs alleviate symptoms in adults.
  • Consider using vapor rub on children. Vapor rub has been shown to relieve cough and improve sleep, however, some people with asthma are sensitive to some of the ingredients, so it should be used with caution.
  • Take zinc to reduce symptom severity and duration.
  • Try nasal saline irrigation to reduce sore throat, thin out nasal mucus, and improve nasal breathing.
  • Consider trying herbal supplements: geranium extract, Echinacea, and other herbal preparations. In studies, these have shortened the duration of colds; however, they should be used with caution by people with asthma, who may be sensitive to some of the ingredients.
Written by: Sarah O'Brien | Last Reviewed: May 2016.
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