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What are asthma and pneumonia?

Asthma and pneumonia are two diseases that affect the lungs.

Asthma is a chronic condition. It causes periodic inflammation and narrowing of the airways. It affects the main bronchi, which are the two tubes that branch off the trachea (windpipe). Asthma isn’t curable, but you can effectively manage it. And it can even improve over time.

Pneumonia is a lung infection. It can occur in one or 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.

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

If you have asthma and get the flu, your symptoms—and your complications—may be worse than they are for someone who doesn’t have asthma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with asthma who get the flu are more likely to develop pneumonia as a complication.

One of the treatments for asthma is inhaled corticosteroids. According to one study, these medications may themselves increase the risk of respiratory infections and pneumonia.

Some of the key differences between the conditions can be seen in the table below.

Causes shortness of breath
Causes a cough
Causes an increase in pulse rate
Causes an increase in respiratory rate
Causes fever
Causes wheezing, or a whistling sound when you breathe
Causes a crackling sound when you breathe
Can be managed with treatment
Can be cured

Asthma and pneumonia both cause:

However, there are significant differences as well.

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 asthma flare-ups (also called exacerbations).

Possible triggers of asthma symptoms include:

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, flu, or other respiratory infection.

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:

Pneumonia can be viral or bacterial:

  • Viral pneumonia symptoms start out much like 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.
  • Bacterial pneumonia symptoms include a temperature that could go as high as 105°F (40.6°C). 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.

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

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:

If you have the symptoms of asthma, your doctor will want a complete medical history. A physical exam includes 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 (WBCs). Checking your mucus can also help your doctor determine what type of pneumonia you have.

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 such as albuterol (ProAir HFA, Ventolin HFA) 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 such as salmeterol (Severent Diskus), or sublingual tablets, which are a type of immunotherapy.

Shop for a peak flow meter to use at home.

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 (OTC) medications to control fever.

These medications may include aspirin (Bayer), ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Naprosyn), or acetophenazine (Tylenol). You should not give aspirin to children.


Children and anyone under the age of 18 should never take aspirin for an illness. This is because of the risk of a rare, but fatal, condition called Reye’s syndrome.

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 5 years old, or over 65.

People with severe pneumonia may require hospitalization and may need to receive:

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.

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, since 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 are sick
  • managing your symptoms closely if you have severe asthma