Living with a chronic autoimmune condition like lupus can be challenging enough. But if you start to also experience symptoms of asthma, such as shortness of breath and chest tightness, you may be wondering what this means. Are the asthma symptoms related to lupus? Does lupus cause asthma? Most importantly, what should you do if you start to experience asthma symptoms?

Here’s what to know about the connection between lupus and asthma, and how to treat them simultaneously.

Yes, having lupus can make you more likely to experience asthma. There are several studies indicating a strong connection between lupus and asthma.

For example, a 2014 study found that people with lupus have a “significantly higher” chance of developing asthma than the general population. Later, a 2020 study found that people who have asthma are also more likely to develop lupus during their lifetime.

Research from 2021 found some more specific information on the prevalence of asthma among people who have lupus. According to the study data, 19.8% of people with lupus reported having asthma. In the general population, about 8.3% of adults have asthma, so this research shows that people with lupus are more than twice as likely to have asthma.

The reason for the connection between lupus and asthma is not clear; researchers are still trying to understand why people with lupus are more likely to have asthma, and vice versa.

Lupus, known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in the body, along with tissue damage. This inflammation may be widespread and can also affect particular organs and organ systems, including the skin, brain, joints, and kidneys.

Lupus can affect the lungs as well, causing specific lung conditions to develop. In fact, studies show that between 20%-90% of people with lupus develop symptoms in their lungs. Some of the common lung conditions that affect people who have lupus include:

  • lung parenchyma (acute pneumonitis and interstitial lung disease)
  • pleura (pleurisy and pleural effusion)
  • pulmonary vasculature
  • shrinking lung syndrome (more rarely)

Many of the lung conditions commonly associated with lupus share many of the same symptoms as asthma. According to 2020 research, symptoms of lupus-induced respiratory conditions that require medical attention include:

Similarly, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), common asthma symptoms may include:

How do you know if lupus is affecting your lungs?

Lung symptoms that may arise in people with lupus can include trouble breathing, feelings of pain and tightness in the chest area, a new cough that won’t go away, and a feeling of breathlessness while exercising or performing common activities.

If you have any new or noticeable respiratory symptoms, you should contact your healthcare professional and your lupus care team.

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Researchers who shared 2021 data about the relationship between lupus and asthma (as well as COPD) suggest that healthcare professionals begin routinely screening people with lupus for lung conditions such as asthma. This way, people with lupus can receive proper treatment for their asthma.

Diagnosing asthma

The first step in getting treatment for your asthma involves getting a proper diagnosis. Usually, this involves getting screened by a pulmonologist who specializes in asthma. According to the AAFA, screenings for asthma may include:

  • spirometry tests: a mouthpiece connected to a machine — called a spirometer — analyses the amount of air you are able to breathe and the flow rate of your breaths
  • peak flow meters: hand-held devices that measure the force of air out of your lungs
  • FeNO tests: gauge the amount of inflammation in your lungs
  • provocation tests: they trigger minor asthma symptoms in people to see if they react and therefore have asthma

Treatments for asthma

Treatments for asthma vary according to how frequently you have asthma attacks and what your asthma is triggered by. Common treatments for asthma, according to AAFA, can include:

  • medications that give fast relief for symptoms
  • medications that help control symptoms on a daily basis, by decreasing inflammation and other lung issues that contribute to asthma
  • biologic treatment, which targets issues of swelling in the lungs

The type of asthma treatment you need will depend on many factors including your asthma symptoms and what your lupus treatment is. Your doctor will help you find the best medication for you. Keep them informed on any changes to your system and how often you use a rescue inhaler.

As of now, it’s not entirely clear how having asthma affects your overall outlook with lupus, as the research is new and evolving. Research from 2021 found that people with lupus who also have asthma or COPD had increased fatigue, decreased cognitive functioning, overall poorer physical functioning, and increased pain.

Living with lupus and asthma

If you live with lupus, you know that it can affect all aspects of your life, including your health, relationships, and mental health. If you have a new condition such as asthma to contend with, you may feel extra stressed.

Support for any chronic condition is vital and can make such a difference in your ability to cope and thrive in life. Thankfully, there are many resources available for people living with both lupus and asthma. Here are some to get you started:

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People with lupus are prone to lung issues and may be more likely to experience asthma.

If you are having asthma-like symptoms for the first time, it’s imperative to take these symptoms seriously and see a healthcare professional for an assessment. There are many ways of treating asthma and your care team can help you find a way to manage and minimize your symptoms.

If you’re having severe symptoms, like trouble catching your breath, feeling lightheaded or dizzy, or are having unexplained chest tightness, seek emergency medical care.