Patient Blog
Published: November 02, 2023

Why respiratory viruses are worth paying attention to

Viruses are one of the most frequently recorded triggers in Propeller

It’s that time of year again: fall. When pumpkin spice scents mix with hand sanitizer, costumes with masks serve a dual purpose, and germs seem to be everywhere. 

For people with asthma or COPD, fall can be a tricky time to find a balance between fun, seasonal activities and the risk of getting sick. That’s because, according to the CDC, getting sick from a respiratory virus (like the flu, COVID-19, and RSV) can be more serious for people with lung conditions, and can lead to flare-ups or pneumonia.

So, what’s someone with asthma or COPD to do? By learning more about viruses and planning ahead for what to do if you do get sick, you’re on your way to enjoying more of the fun fall has to offer. 

Keep scrolling to read more:

  • Why respiratory viruses can be more troublesome for people with breathing issues
  • Which viruses to watch out for
  • Ways to stay healthy during virus season
  • Who to talk to if you have questions

Asthma, COPD, and respiratory viruses 

Respiratory conditions like asthma and COPD already make it difficult to breathe. They do this by making the tubes we breathe through (airways) swollen or tight. And the tighter the airways, the harder it is for air to go in and out of the lungs. 

Add in a virus that targets the airways or lungs, and suddenly it may be a lot harder to catch a breath. 

  • For someone with asthma, a virus could cause additional airway swelling and trigger an asthma attack. According to the Mayo Clinic, respiratory illness is one of the most common causes of a flare-up. 
  • For someone with COPD, a virus could mean more damage to already vulnerable airways and lungs. This could lead to pneumonia or a COPD flare-up serious enough to need a trip to the hospital.1

Which viruses to look out for

While there are germs around all year long, fall and winter are prime times for three of the most talked about viruses: flu, COVID-19, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

These viruses have a lot in common. They’re all infections of some part of the respiratory system (nose, throat, airways, lungs), have symptoms that look similar or overlap (runny nose, sore throat, cough), and they’re all easy to catch and spread.

For people with lung conditions, rates of flu, Covid, and RSV are worth keeping an eye on. Here are a few ways to do so:

  • Word-of-mouth: Take note of who is sick around you
  • Local authorities: See if your state or local health organizations keep track of cases
  • Centers for Disease Control (CDC): Check out their respiratory virus tracker where they show emergency room visits tied to a respiratory virus

Ways to stay healthy during virus season

Even when there’s an uptick in cases, there are ways to protect yourself during peak respiratory virus season. Try combining more than one to boost your level of protection.

  • Get vaccinated. Vaccines can reduce your risk of illness and if you do get sick, help you not get even sicker. There are vaccines available for flu, Covid, RSV, and pneumonia, although the CDC guidelines differ by age.
    • Flu: Once-per-year, seasonal vaccine recommended for ages 6 months and older
    • COVID-19: Stay up to date with the series, ages 6 months and older  
    • RSV: Talk to your doctor to see if it’s right for you, ages 60 and older
    • Pneumonia: The pneumococcal vaccine series is recommended for adults over 19 years old with chronic lung diseases, including COPD and asthma. The first dose should be before 65 years old and then twice more at 65 years or older.
  • Wash your hands regularly. Frequent handwashing with soap and water can significantly reduce the risk of getting sick. No soap? Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol will do the trick, too.
  • Keep your distance. Stay away from people who are sick, avoid crowded places where the risk of exposure to germs is higher, and stay home when you’re not feeling well.
  • Mask up. Face masks can help reduce the spread of viruses by both helping you breathe in fewer germs and by protecting others if you are sick.
  • Clean house and air. Regular household cleaners will rid surfaces of viral particles, while an air purifier can help reduce pesky airborne germs.

What to do if you get sick

Before the first seasonal sniffles hit, make a care plan with your doctor or health care team. Planning ahead will help you know which symptoms to look out for, when to contact the clinic, and if needed, when to call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Your care team may also recommend that you keep a non-expired rescue inhaler nearby to use as-needed.  

If you do get sick with one of these respiratory viruses, there are a few things you can do to improve your recovery and help keep others healthy, too. When symptoms show up, that’s your cue to drink plenty of fluids, prioritize rest, and stay home from work, school, and other public places until you feel better. 

To help figure out the best treatment plan, there are tests you can take to help you and your doctor make decisions about what to do next. Only Covid tests are available over the counter at this time. Work with your doctor to figure out if testing for a respiratory virus is right for you.

In the event you fall ill with flu or Covid, there are prescription antiviral treatments available. To find out the best treatment plan for you, talk to your doctor or care team. 

From guidance on vaccines to testing, from treatment plan changes to knowing when to get immediate medical attention, your care team is your best resource to help you plan for and navigate this time of the year.

1 Frickmann, H., Jungblut, S., Hirche, T. O., Groß, U., Kuhns, M., & Zautner, A. E. (2012). The influence of virus infections on the course of COPD. European journal of microbiology & immunology, 2(3), 176–185.

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