Colds and flu
Many people experience an increase in asthma symptoms and find their asthma harder to control during Winter.
Among adults with asthma, emergency department presentations and hospitalisation rates peak during the Winter months and early Spring (June – September) which is likely due to the increase in respiratory infections and the annual Winter flu season.
There tend to be more asthma triggers around during the Winter season – including colder weather, colds and flu viruses, unhealthy eating habits and poor indoor air quality. So, if you experience an increase in your asthma symptoms over Winter, you’re not alone. But, you don’t need to put up with these symptoms.
Follow the information below to help reduce the likelihood of asthma triggers and download (PDF 2MB) our checklist to be Winter well with asthma.
What things can impact your asthma over Winter?
Colds and the flu
The flu and other viral infections are the most common trigger for asthma flare-ups (attacks). Colds and flu can be more serious for people with asthma, even if your asthma is mild or your symptoms are well-controlled by medication.
The reasons for this are not fully understood, but it is known that people with asthma have swollen and sensitive airways, and colds and flu can cause further inflammation of the airways, which can then cause further narrowing and trigger asthma flare-ups and a worsening of asthma symptoms. People with asthma who contract influence (flu) are at higher risk of experience severe asthma flare-ups.
The flu can result in further complications including:
- Pneumonia, bronchitis, ear infections
- Headaches, muscle aches, fatigue
- Dehydration, weight loss
As a result, people infected with the flu can face the following consequences
- Days lost from work and school
- Hospitalisation and sometimes even death
The best way to protect yourself from the flu is annual flu vaccination as well as observing a number of personal hygiene behaviours.
The flu virus is always changing, so it is important to have the flu vaccine every year. This will increase the chance you and your family are protected against the most recent flu virus strains that may be around. It is best to be vaccinated from mid-April so your body has time to protect itself before the flu season starts so you are ready for the peak flu period, from around June to September.
Asthma Australia recommends that everyone with asthma including all family members over 6 months of age should be immunised against the flu. You can get your flu vaccination from a range of vaccination providers which can include general practices (your local doctor), community health clinics, Aboriginal Medical Services, pharmacies and others. Talk to your doctor, vaccination provider, or Aboriginal Health Practitioner/Worker to arrange your flu shot.
To find out more about flu and the National Immunisation Program:
The flu virus can live on surfaces such as hand rails, lift buttons and toilets for 48 hours and is spread when people touch a surface with the flu virus on it and then touch their own mouth or nose. But stopping the spread of flu can be a matter of following three simple steps:
- cough or sneeze into your elbow
- wash your hands thoroughly and regularly; and
- if you’re really unwell, stay home
If you don’t have a tissue handy and you feel a sneeze or cough coming on, cough into your elbow. This stops your hands getting covered in the flu virus and will help stop the spread of those nasty germs. If you do use a tissue, make sure you dispose of it into a bin nearby and then wash your hands thoroughly.
Flu germs are carried in almost invisible little droplets from saliva, sneezes, coughs and runny noses. Hands are one of the top carriers of germs and viruses. Washing your hands thoroughly with soap at regular intervals throughout the day is a quick and easy way to help stop the spread of these germs.
Visit the Department of Health for more information and resources on how you can stop the spread of colds and flu.
Over the Winter months, when it’s cool and the days get shorter, people may be less inclined to regularly exercise. However, it is important that you maintain a healthy level of fitness and continue to exercise year-round as part of your overall asthma management routine. Asthma shouldn’t stop you from being physically active, in fact people with asthma who participate in exercise training report feeling better.
Before starting exercise, it’s important to take the right steps to prepare:
- Many people with asthma have symptoms when they exercise, known as Exercise Induced Bronchoconstriction. This can be prevented with medication (using a reliever just before exercising, using regular preventer medication, or both). Speak to your doctor if you experience asthma symptoms while exercising for a plan to prevent and manage your symptoms.
- Some people with asthma report cold dry air, particularly in the Winter months, to be a trigger for their symptoms. If this is a trigger for your asthma, speak to your doctor before Winter to establish a plan to ensure risks are identified and minimised.
Download our Exercise Induced Bronchoconstriction fact sheet.
During the Winter months, people may be more likely to eat heavier meals and larger quantities of food. It is important you focus on eating a balanced diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables. You should aim for 5 serves of vegetables and 2 serves of fruit every day, this may reduce your risk of an asthma flare-up compared to a diet with fewer fruits and vegetables. Try to limit take-away and processed foods. These foods are high in saturated fats, which promote inflammation and may increase your risk of poor asthma control.
For more information visit the Australian guide to healthy eating
There is growing interest and research into the potential role of Vitamin D in asthma management. While limited research suggests Vitamin D may have a protective effect against asthma flare-ups, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest recommending Vitamin D supplementation as part of general asthma management.
However, with shorter and cooler days during Winter, and more time spent indoors, you may have reduced exposure to the sun and therefore Vitamin D production. During Winter, sun exposure is best during the middle of the day. Speak to your doctor if you are concerned about your Vitamin D levels during winter.
Indoor air quality
Colder weather in Winter means an increase in the use of heating systems, some of which can be a trigger for asthma.
- Un-flued gas heating can release chemicals such as nitrogen dioxide which can be a trigger for asthma.
- Fan-forced ducted heating can collect dust, and if not cleaned will circulate dust around the house. Make sure you have your ducted heating cleaned before using it after a period of time.
- Wood fire heaters produce high levels of smoke and small particulate matter emissions (including PM2.5) which can be a trigger for asthma. You may be triggered by smoke from your own wood fire heater or that of your neighbours.
If you have a wood fire heater and no alternative way of heating, consider ways to reduce the impact of wood fire heater smoke including;
- Having your flue professionally checked and cleaned before winter
- Burning only dry, unseasoned, untreated wood
- Getting hot fire started quickly, using plenty of paper and small kindling
- Never overloading your wood heater with too much wood
- Never leaving your heater to smoulder overnight, this starves the fire of oxygen, producing smoke and pollution
If your neighbour’s wood smoke is triggering your asthma, talk to your neighbour respectfully as they may not be aware there is a problem. Provide them suggestions, as above, for reducing the impact of their wood smoke. If you are not able to resolve the issue with your neighbour, you might benefit from speaking to your local council.
As is the case with other chronic conditions, research shows that people with asthma are more likely to also have depression or anxiety. Having anxiety or depression can make it harder for people to manage their asthma. Symptoms of anxiety or depression may arise at any time of the year, but over the Winter period when the risk of poorly controlled asthma is high, you may be more likely to experience symptoms of depression or anxiety.
If you notice you are feeling down, anxious or aren’t enjoying normal activities as much as usual you should speak to your doctor or contact Beyond Blue.
Download our Asthma, anxiety and depression fact sheet.
What can you do to be Winter well with asthma?
Good asthma management year-round is the key to ensuring you are ready for Winter.
Download (PDF 2MB) our Winter well with asthma checklist.
Visit your doctor for an asthma review
Asthma isn’t something you have to deal with on your own. Your doctor and other health professionals can help you get good asthma control, so you can live a full and active life.
Visit your doctor every 6 – 12 months for an asthma review. With your doctor:
- assess your current level of asthma control
- make sure you are on the right medicines to manage your asthma (e.g. a preventer)
- check your inhaler technique
- ensure your Asthma Action Plan is up-to-date
- discuss getting the flu vaccination
- ask about your asthma, your treatment and how to stay healthy during winter
Download our handy guide - Things to ask and tell your doctor.
Get a written Asthma Action Plan
An Asthma Action Plan is something developed with a doctor to help recognise worsening asthma and gives clear instructions on what to do during an asthma flare-up and should include instructions about managing asthma at the onset of a cold or flu.
Every person with asthma should have their own written Asthma Action Plan however, only 1 in 5 people aged 15 and over with asthma have one.
With your doctor, develop or update your written Asthma Action Plan. Follow a written asthma action plan for:
- better controlled asthma
- fewer asthma flare-ups
- fewer days off work or school
- reduced reliever medication use
- fewer hospital visits.
Take the Asthma Control Test
Poor asthma control (frequent symptoms and/or flare-ups) is a common problem in both adults and children. Research has found that for almost half of all people with asthma, there is a gap between the potential control of their asthma symptoms and the level of control they currently experience.
If you have experienced any of the following in the last four weeks it indicates your asthma may not be under good control.
- daytime asthma symptoms more than 2 days per week
- need for reliever more than 2 days per week
- any limitation on activities due to asthma symptoms
- any asthma symptoms during the night or on waking
Take the Asthma Control Test to get your Asthma Score.
Preventer - every day, even when well
Preventers work to reduce the inflammation in the airways. Regular use of your preventer makes the airways less sensitive, which reduces the frequency and severity of asthma symptoms (reducing the need for your reliever medication) and the risk of future flare-ups.
Daily use of a preventer is key to keeping well.
Check your device technique
Up to 90% of people are thought to use their inhalers incorrectly, which means the dose of medicine isn’t getting into the lungs where it’s needed. Ask your doctor or pharmacist to check you are using your inhaler medication device correctly.
Watch our series of instructional videos showing how to correctly use a variety of asthma medication devices.
Winter well with asthma resources.
To promote our Winter well with asthma message, we have developed a range of digital resources available for you to download and print:
Winter well with asthma checklist (PDF 2MB)
A3 poster (PDF 980.9KB)
A5 flyer (PDF 972.6KB)
Winter well with asthma digital image
For more information on how you can be Winter well with asthma call 1800 ASTHMA Helpline (1800 278 462).