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Asthma and Pneumonia: What Are the Differences?

Asthma and pneumonia

Highlights

  1. Some symptoms of asthma and pneumonia are similar, such as shortness of breath, cough, and an increase in pulse and respiratory rates.
  2. Asthma is a chronic condition. You can manage its symptoms, but it’s not curable.
  3. An infection causes pneumonia. It’s curable.

Asthma and pneumonia are diseases that affect the lungs.

Asthma is a chronic condition. It causes periodic inflammation and narrowing of the airways. It’s not curable, but you can effectively manage it, and it can even improve over time.

Pneumonia is a lung infection. It can occur in part of a lung or in both lungs. It causes inflammation of the air sacs. It can also cause your lungs to fill with fluid. It’s possible to treat and cure pneumonia.

Although their symptoms are similar, asthma and pneumonia are distinct diseases that require different treatment approaches.

The asthma-pneumonia connection

People who have chronic respiratory conditions like asthma may be at higher risk of developing pneumonia.

If you have asthma and get influenza, your symptoms may be worse. People who have asthma and the flu are more likely to get pneumonia than those who don’t have asthma.

One of the treatments for asthma is inhaled corticosteroids. These medications may increase the risk of respiratory infections and pneumonia.

What are the symptoms?

Asthma and pneumonia both cause:

  • shortness of breath
  • a cough
  • an increase in pulse rate
  • an increase in respiratory rate

But there are significant differences, too.

Symptoms of asthma

Asthma flare-ups can include coughing, tightness of the chest, and wheezing. If it progresses, it can speed up breathing and pulse rates. Decreased lung function can make it difficult to breathe. You may hear a high-pitched whistling sound when you breathe.

Symptoms range from mild to severe. Asthma symptoms can last a few minutes to many hours. There may be few symptoms between exacerbations.

Possible triggers of asthma symptoms include:

  • allergens such as pollen, mold, and pet dander
  • chemical fumes
  • air pollution
  • smoke
  • exercise
  • cold and dry weather

Asthma may be more difficult to control if you have other chronic health problems. The risk of an acute attack is higher if you get a cold, the flu, or other respiratory infection.

Learn more about asthma: The best asthma blogs of the year »

Symptoms of pneumonia

The symptoms of pneumonia can be mild at first. You might think you have the common cold. As the infection takes hold, your cough may be accompanied by green, yellow, or bloody mucus.

Other symptoms include:

  • a fever
  • a headache
  • clammy skin
  • a loss of appetite
  • tiredness
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain that worsens when you breathe or cough

Pneumonia can be viral or bacterial. Viral pneumonia symptoms start out similar to those of the flu and include fever, muscle pain, and dry cough. As it progresses, the cough gets worse and you may produce mucus. Shortness of breath and fever can follow.

If you have bacterial pneumonia, your temperature could go as high as 105°F. Such a high fever can lead to confusion and delirium. Your pulse and breathing rates may rise. Your nail beds and lips may turn blue due to lack of oxygen.

What are the causes of asthma and pneumonia?

Researchers aren’t sure exactly what causes asthma. There may be an inherited tendency to develop asthma. There may also be environmental factors.

Pneumonia can be caused by a variety of things, such as:

  • viruses, including the flu virus
  • bacteria
  • mycoplasmas
  • fungi
  • other infectious agents
  • various chemicals

What are the risk factors?

Anyone can get asthma. Most people start to have symptoms during childhood. The risk factors for asthma include:

  • a family history of asthma
  • a personal history of respiratory infections or allergies
  • exposure to airborne allergens, chemicals, or smoke

Anyone can get pneumonia, too. Having asthma may increase your risk for developing pneumonia. Smoking can also increase your risk of pneumonia. Other risk factors include having:

  • recently had a respiratory infection, such as a cold or the flu
  • a chronic lung disease
  • heart disease
  • diabetes
  • liver disease
  • cerebral palsy
  • a neurological condition that affects swallowing
  • a weakened immune system

How are asthma and pneumonia diagnosed?

If you have the symptoms of asthma, your doctor will want a complete medical history. A physical exam will include inspecting your nose, throat, and airways.

Your doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to your lungs as you breathe. A whistling sound is a sign of asthma. You may also be asked to breathe into a spirometer to test your lung function. They may also perform allergy tests.

If your symptoms point toward pneumonia, your doctor will probably start by listening to your lungs. One of the hallmarks of pneumonia is that your lungs make a crackling sound when you breathe. In most cases, a chest X-ray can confirm the diagnosis. If necessary, a CT chest scan can get a more detailed look at lung function.

You may also need blood work to make sure you’re getting enough oxygen and to get a count of your white blood cells. Checking your mucus can help your doctor determine what type of pneumonia you have.

What are the treatments for asthma and pneumonia?

Asthma requires both short-term treatment and long-term management. In most cases, doctors can treat and cure pneumonia within a short time.

Treating asthma

Asthma is a chronic disease that requires ongoing management. You should get treatment for symptom flare-ups quickly. An acute asthma attack is a life-threatening medical emergency.

If you can identify symptom triggers, you can try to avoid them. Allergy medications may also help.

You can also check your lung function with a handheld peak flow meter. When symptoms flare up, you can use inhaled beta-2 agonists or anticholinergics to expand your airways.

If you have severe asthma, you may need to use daily medications to prevent attacks. These may include inhaled or oral corticosteroids, long-term beta-2 agonists, or sublingual tablets, which are a type of immunotherapy.

Treating pneumonia

If you’re in good overall health, home treatment may be all that’s necessary. Home care should include getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids to loosen phlegm, and using over-the-counter medications, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen, to control fever. However, you shouldn’t give aspirin to children.

Coughing can be exhausting, but it’s how your body purges infection. Ask your doctor before taking cough medicine.

Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication for viral pneumonia or antibiotics for bacterial pneumonia.

Treatment can be complicated if you have other health problems, are under age 5, or are over age 65. People with severe pneumonia may require hospitalization. You may need to receive:

  • intravenous fluids
  • antibiotics
  • medication for chest pain
  • oxygen therapy or other assistance with breathing

Outlook

It’s possible to monitor and successfully manage asthma. Most people with asthma live full, active lives.

It takes from one to three weeks to fully recover from pneumonia. It can take much longer if you’re not in good overall health.

In severe cases, or without treatment, both conditions can be life-threatening.

Can asthma and pneumonia be prevented?

Asthma isn’t preventable. Good disease management can cut down on asthma attacks, however.

You can get a vaccination for a type of bacterial pneumonia called pneumococcal pneumonia. Doctors recommend this vaccine for certain people at risk of developing the disease. Ask your doctor if you should get the vaccine.

You can also reduce your risk of getting pneumonia by:

  • washing your hands regularly to help reduce the spread of germs
  • not smoking because tobacco use can make it more difficult for your lungs to fight off infection
  • maintaining a healthy diet
  • staying active
  • practicing good sleep hygiene to help your body recover more quickly if you’re sick
  • managing your symptoms closely if you have severe asthma

Read This Next

What Exactly is ‘Thunderstorm Asthma?’
Is It Asthma or Bronchitis? Learn the Signs
What Does It Feel Like to Live with Asthma?
Understanding Pneumonia with Lung Cancer
The 12 Best Asthma Blogs of 2016
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