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What Coronavirus Means for People With Asthma

COVID-19 is extra risky for people with asthma, but there’s no reason for my fellow asthmatics to panic

Save for a three-month period of third grade where I developed bronchitis, required corticosteroids and nebulizer treatments four times a day, I’ve never thought much about my asthma. It’s mostly been a good excuse to get out of gym class activities I hated, and any other situation that required running thereafter. But after hearing stories of people in their 20s hospitalized, or nurses in their 40s with only mild asthma as a pre-existing condition dying from coronavirus, I’m definitely thinking about it. 

On the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, “people with asthma” are listed as a demographic at an increased risk for severe complications from the virus, alongside older adults and people with HIV. A wide variety of conditions, from cancer to diabetes to obesity, are considered added risks for severe illness, but asthma has its own category. The CDC specifies that those with “moderate to severe” asthma are the ones particularly at risk, but what exactly does this mean? 

Asthma is a condition where our airways swell and are made more narrow. On top of that, we produce more mucus. As such, it can be difficult to move air through. It’s incurable, but manageable. Asthma is caused by genetics and environmental factors, like exposure to secondhand smoke or pollen. According to the National Asthma Education and Prevention Program, there are four asthma classifications: intermittent, mild persistent, moderate persistent and severe persistent. At the lowest end, those with intermittent asthma may experience symptoms like wheezing or chest tightness up to twice a week, but it generally doesn’t interfere with their daily activities. At the highest end, those with severe asthma experience daily symptoms that significantly limit their lives.

In the middle, mild persistent and moderate persistent asthma can be harder to differentiate. Generally, what separates mild from moderate is the number of days per week one experiences symptoms. Those with mild asthma will experience it more than twice per week, but not every day. Those with moderate asthma likely experience symptoms every day, though it may not hinder their daily activities in the way severe asthma does. Those with moderate asthma are also more likely to be prescribed a corticosteroid, which helps lessen inflammation in the lungs, than those with mild asthma. 

But ultimately, asthma severity is a matter of exactly how swollen our airways are. The more swollen, the more likely we are to experience problems with other respiratory illnesses. This includes COVID-19. Specifically, it inflames and irritates much of our respiratory system. It’s not that having asthma makes the virus stronger or more powerful, but that with asthma, our bodies are less equipped to handle this added inflammation. We’re therefore more likely to struggle to breath and require hospital care. 

That said, there’s still much to be learned about exactly how coronavirus works and the role asthma can play in it. Having moderate asthma and contracting the virus certainly isn’t a death sentence, but it does increase the odds of being unable to self-treat. Those exact odds have yet to be measured, but as with everyone, it’s best to be precautious. 

As there’s still no known treatment, the CDC recommends that the best course of action for those with asthma is to do everything they can to prevent getting it. Prevention for people with asthma is ultimately no different than those without –– wash your hands, disinfect your belongings, avoid others, etc. But if you’re particularly anxious about it, or in an area with high community spread, it’s best to just stay home. 

The good news is, this is also an excuse to delegate the cleaning to someone else. Per the CDC, “If possible, have someone who doesn’t have asthma do the cleaning and disinfecting.” Many disinfecting products with bleach or ammonia can trigger asthma symptoms. Naturally, you want to avoid an asthma attack right now. Opening windows and utilizing fans can help mitigate the effects. 

Beyond that, make sure your usual asthma necessities are in place. In particular, it’s a good idea to contact your doctor to discuss your concerns and see if you can get an emergency supply of your medications, including inhalers. That way, you can further avoid needing to leave the house. 

People with asthma should really avoid getting sick, but so should everyone else. If you have asthma, there’s no reason to panic — just do what everyone else is doing and hunker down. At least in that context, you can breathe easy.

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