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Colds and flu

What is the flu?

Influenza, or the flu is a highly contagious viral infection that infects the respiratory tract (nose, throat and lungs). As with other viral infections the flu spreads easily from person to person through the air by coughing or sneezing, or by direct contact with the virus on hard surfaces or people’s hands. You can’t see it but it is there. 

The flu and other viral infections are the most common trigger for asthma flare-ups. 

How do colds and flu impact asthma?
What can you do to be prepared for the cold and flu season?
* Visit your doctor for an asthma review
* Take the Asthma Control Test
* Preventer - every day when well
* Check your device technique
* Get a written Asthma Action Plan
* Get an annual flu vaccination
* Stop the spread of colds and flu
More information and resources to help you get asthma ready this winter

How do colds and flu impact asthma?

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, however we do know that people with asthma have swollen and sensitive airways, and it is thought that colds and flu can cause further swelling of the airways, which can trigger asthma flare-ups and a worsening of asthma symptoms. 

Among adults, emergency department presentations and hospitalisation rates for asthma are highest during the winter months and early spring (June through to September), which most likely reflects the rise in respiratory infections during this time. 

People with asthma who contract influenza (flu) are at higher risk of experiencing complications. These complications can include:

  •  more severe asthma flare-ups,
  • pneumonia,bronchitis,ear infections,
  • days lost from work and school,
  • hospitalisation and even death.

Asthma Australia surveyed over 500 people with asthma and their carers to better understand their personal experiences of asthma and how it is affected during the cold and flu season. Survey respondents told us that colds and flu mean: 

  • Increased asthma symptoms
  • Increased reliever medication
  • Visit doctor
  • Course of oral corticosteroids
  • Day off work/school/study


Download the 
Asthma and Flu Consumer Survey Results Infographic (PDF 2.7MB)

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What can you do to be prepared for the cold and flu season?

Cold and flu viruses are very common triggers for people with asthma, and although you can’t always avoid them, you can lower your risk and the impact of a cold or flu triggering an asthma flare-up.  Good asthma management year-round is key to ensuring you are ready for the winter cold and flu season. Here are some key asthma management tips to be asthma ready this winter.

Visit your doctor for an asthma review

A survey of Australians aged 16 and older with current asthma, identified that 29% had needed urgent health care for asthma in the previous year [2]. Of these, 23% had urgent need to see their GP, 10% their emergency department or hospital, with 4% needing one or more nights in hospital because of their asthma.

You should see your doctor at least every 6-12 months, to make sure your medicines are still working right for you, as your asthma can change over time.

Visit your doctor 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 
ask any questions

10 things to ask your doctor. Download this handy guide now!

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 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 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.

Most adults and adolescents with asthma should have regular preventer medication, however Australian data shows that less than 20% of people are being dispensed enough preventer medication to be taking their treatment regularly. Almost 40% of people only use reliever medication, treating their symptoms but not the cause. 

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. 

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 also 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.


Get an annual flu vaccination

The best way to protect yourself from the flu is annual flu vaccination.

The flu virus is always changing, so it is important to have the flu vaccine every year. This will ensure 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. It is never too late to get the flu vaccination as influenza can circulate all year round. 

Everyone with asthma including all family members should be immunised against the flu. 

Download our ‘Be asthma ready for winter’ checklist

Who is eligible for the free flu vaccine under the National Immunisation Program?

The vaccine is free under the National Immunisation Program for people who are more likely to be affected by complications from the flu. This includes:

People 65 years and over 
Older people aged 65 years and over are more likely to be affected by complications associated with seasonal flu.

Pregnant women
Pregnant women are more likely to be affected by complications associated with the flu. Experts from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation recommend vaccinating against flu at any stage during pregnancy, and preferably before the flu season starts. The flu vaccine given in pregnancy protects pregnant women and their babies during their first months of life. This is when babies are most likely to be affected by infection and are too young to get vaccinated themselves.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can get the flu vaccine for free at these ages: 
  •  six months to less than five years
  • 15 years and over. 

People with certain medical conditions 
People with some existing medical conditions are more likely to have complications from the flu and are eligible for a free flu vaccine. This includes anyone who is six months of age and over who has:

  •  heart disease
  • severe asthma (requiring frequent medical consultations or use of multiple medications)
  • chronic lung conditions
  • diseases of the nervous system which affect your breathing
  • impaired immunity
  • diabetes
  • kidney disease
  • blood disorders
  • children aged six months to 10 years on long-term aspirin therapy.

If you are not sure if these categories apply to you or your child, speak to your doctor, vaccination provider or Aboriginal Health Practitioner/Worker.

If your child is not eligible for a free flu vaccine under the National Immunisation Program, they might still be able to get a free vaccine in your state or territory. Talk to your vaccination provider or local state or territory health department to find out more about free flu vaccines.


You can also buy a flu vaccine if you are not eligible to get a vaccine for free. 

New flu vaccines for people aged 65 years and over
This year, there are two new vaccines available to provide better protection for people aged 65 years and over. If you are aged 65 years or over, speak to your doctor or vaccination provider to find out more about receiving one of the new vaccines. These vaccines cannot be given to people aged under 65 years.

Flu vaccines for children
All flu vaccines are age-specific. Let your doctor know the age of your child before they get their flu vaccine. This will make sure they receive the correct dose and brand.

Where can I get the flu vaccine?
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: 

  •  call the National Immunisation Hotline: 1800 671 811
  • visit the Department of Health’s immunisation website at health.gov.au/immunisation 

 

Stop the spread of colds and flu

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 is as easy as making sure you’re following three simple steps:
1. cough or sneeze into your elbow
2. wash your hands thoroughly; and 
3. 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 and hands are one of the top spreaders 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 Better Health Channel for more information and resources on how you can stop the spread of colds and flu. 

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For more information and resources to help you get asthma ready this winter:

Call the 1800 ASTHMA Helpline (1800 278 462) for more information and support

Be Asthma ready this Winter Checklist

Asthma Australia’s Asthma and Flu Survey Results (PDF 2.7MB) 

Better Health Channel

Immunisation Australia (Australian Government, Department of Health)

FLUSMART – Immunisation Coalition 

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