Asthma is inflammation of the airways that carry air to and from the lungs. Symptoms include things like shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing or wheezing.

It’s a common condition. In the United States, 1 in 13 people — both children and adults — have asthma.

While there is no cure for asthma, avoiding triggers and taking certain medications can help manage and relieve symptoms.

Here’s what you need to know about asthma, what type of disease it is, and how it affects your immune system.

In short, no. Asthma is not considered an autoimmune disease.

Autoimmune diseases develop when the body’s immune system sees healthy tissues, organs, or cells as a threat. The immune system then attacks various parts of the body, which can cause a host of symptoms (joint pain, skin rash, heart issues, etc.) as a result.

Scientists have identified more than 80 autoimmune diseases. Examples include:

So, what is asthma?

While asthma is also caused by an immune response, it is not considered an autoimmune disease. Instead, it is a chronic lung disease because it primarily affects the lungs.

Experts share that chronic lung diseases may begin slowly but get worse with time or without treatment.

Common triggers, like smoke, cold air, pollen, illness, etc., can produce inflammation and excess mucus in the lungs and bring about asthma attacks (also called exacerbations).

There are various subtypes of asthma based on things like the severity and what triggers the condition, such as:

Researchers explain that both chronic (or long lasting) disorders, like asthma, and autoimmune diseases are the result of immune system abnormalities.

Both cause attacks of inflammation in the body. And both autoimmune and chronic diseases can cause life threatening issues if not treated properly.

There is no current cure for asthma or autoimmune diseases. But they can be managed and may go into remission periods with occasional flares.

Where they differ is that asthma is caused by the immune system’s response to certain triggers. Autoimmune conditions are caused by the immune system attacking healthy cells within the body.

Beyond that, asthma affects the lungs while autoimmune diseases usually affect many parts of the body with inflammation, pain, swelling, and heat.

Another key difference is the specific kind of helper T cells in the immune system that the conditions involve. Autoimmune diseases result from an “exaggerated” response of Th1 cells. Asthma results from a response of Th2 cells.

Here’s a quick breakdown of their similarities and differences:

AsthmaAutoimmune diseases
no cure but can be managedno cure but can be managed
symptoms caused by triggers, like cold air, allergens, virusessymptoms caused by immune system attacking healthy cells, tissues, and organs
results from immune system dysfunctionresults from immune system dysfunction
involves Th2 responseinvolves exaggerated Th1 response
symptoms primarily in the lungssymptoms can affect multiple parts of the body

Respiratory illnesses can trigger asthma attacks. If you have a compromised immune system, you may be more susceptible to contracting respiratory illnesses, like the common cold, influenza, bronchitis, or COVID-19.

Getting frequent bouts of illness may make asthma worse. In fact, some 75 percent of people share they get asthma flares when they have a respiratory virus, reports the nonprofit Asthma and Lung UK.

Why exactly? When you are sick, your body makes excess mucus and your airways may become inflamed. This setup makes breathing more difficult.

And if your breathing is already difficult, your chronic asthma may be triggered, leading to an asthma attack.

How to reduce your risks

You can reduce your risk of having an asthma attack during an illness by paying attention to your symptoms and taking a preventive inhaler as prescribed. Be sure to keep any other asthma medications close by if you need them as well.

Talk with your doctor about whether adding regular nebulizer treatments or other asthma treatments may help your respiratory symptoms as you recover.

If you have asthma, it may mean that you have a weaker immune system. In a 2017 study, researchers concluded that people with asthma tend to have suppressed immune systems and may be less able to ward off the flu than other groups.

Researchers looked at lung samples via bronchial biopsy from people with asthma and people without asthma. The lungs of people with asthma did not have a strong immune response to the flu when compared with the people who did not have asthma.

On the other hand, researchers noted that people with asthma appear to have some protective qualities. While they are more likely to be hospitalized, researchers said they are less likely to have severe illness and die from flu complications than people who do not have asthma.

More studies are needed to understand exactly why this is.

What about the effect of asthma medications?

The 2017 study also suggests that the use of corticosteroid medications, like asthma inhalers or oral medications, may suppress the immune system over time.

So, the less robust immune response to the flu overall may be from asthma itself or the use of these medications. That said, the benefits of taking inhaled medications for acute asthma attacks likely outweigh this risk.

Talk with your doctor if you have concerns about how your asthma is managed, how it affects your immune system, and how specific asthma treatments may affect your health.

Asthma is not an autoimmune disease. It is a chronic lung condition that can have serious health effects if not managed and treated properly.

Make an appointment with your doctor to find out what things you can do to keep yourself healthy and reduce your risk of asthma attacks during cold and flu season.