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Asthma and colds

If you have asthma, catching a cold may worsen your symptoms. It's important to understand asthma symptoms and cold symptoms, and to know which asthma medicines you need to help prevent flare-ups and asthma attacks. The information here about asthma can help you stay well when coping with asthma and a cold.

What's the difference between asthma and colds?

Asthma is associated with inflammation of the bronchi. These are airways inside your lungs. Colds are respiratory infections caused by viruses, most commonly rhinovirus, and affect your nose, throat, and sinuses, which are the upper airways.

You normally draw air into your body through your nose and mouth; the air passes down your windpipe (trachea), and into your bronchi. The bronchi divide further into smaller airways and at the end of these tubes are tiny air sacs called alveoli that deliver fresh air (oxygen) to the blood. These air sacs also collect stale air (carbon dioxide), which is exhaled out of the body.

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.

  • The bands of muscle surrounding the airways tighten, a process known as bronchospasm. This makes the airways narrow.
  • The lining of the airways becomes swollen or inflamed.
  • The cells that line the airways produce more mucus.

All of these factors, bronchospasm, inflammation and mucus production, cause asthma symptoms such as breathing difficulties, wheezing, coughing, breathlessness and problems with everyday activities.

What are the symptoms of asthma?

Not everyone with asthma has the same symptoms and in the same way. Symptoms of asthma may also vary from one asthma episode to the next. They may be mild during one episode and severe during the next.

Asthma does not cause a fever, chills, muscle aches or sore throat. The most common asthma symptoms include the following:

  • Frequent coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness.

What are the symptoms of a cold?

Cold symptoms typically begin with discomfort in your throat. That discomfort is followed by a clear, watery nasal discharge; sneezing; a tired sensation known as malaise. You may become hoarse and develop a cough; adults tend not to develop a fever.

For the first few days of a cold, your nose will be filled with watery nasal secretions. Later, these secretions become thicker and darker. This is normal and does not necessarily mean you have developed a bacterial infection.

What cold symptoms indicate I may have a bacterial infection?

Possible complications of a cold (in adults and older children) include sinusitis and lower respiratory tract infections. If you develop a bacterial infection, you may need to be treated with an antibiotic. Seek medical advice if you experience any of these features:

  • Coughing up increased amounts of yellow- or green-coloured mucus
  • Fever (with a temperature over 38° C) or chills
  • Increased fatigue or weakness
  • A very sore throat or pain when swallowing
  • Sinus headaches, upper toothaches or tenderness/pain in the upper cheekbones (although remember that sinusitis can be viral or bacterial).

Also seek medical advice if you have any other cold symptoms that cause concern, such as the following:

  • Increased shortness of breath, difficulty in breathing, or wheezing
  • The symptoms get worse after seven days
  • The symptoms remain unchanged after 10 days
  • Eye pain or swelling and/or vision changes
  • Severe head or facial pain or swelling. 
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