COVID-19 takes a toll on the lungs, and there's a shortage of "rescue" inhalers in some places because of the pandemic. Here's how to stay safe.

By Claire Gillespie
March 27, 2020
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The new coronavirus is causing anxiety for everybody, and people with pre-existing health issues like asthma are particularly concerned. If you have asthma, a lung disease that makes breathing difficult, you may be more vulnerable to COVID-19, the illness caused by the viral infection, according to the World Health Organization. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says people with asthma may be at higher risk of getting “very sick” from COVID-19, because the illness can affect the respiratory tract (i.e. the nose, throat, and lungs) and cause an asthma attack. COVID-19 may also lead to pneumonia and acute respiratory disease, which can be more serious in people with asthma.

“Asthma is an inflammatory disease, with respiratory infection being one of the most common causes for exacerbation,” Jack Stewart, MD, pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California, tells Health. “This means patients with asthma may experience exacerbation of their asthma as well as the usual effects of COVID-19.” 

However, there’s little data about how exactly COVID-19 affects people with asthma, and there’s no data available yet to prove they are more likely to be infected than people who don’t have asthma. In fact, one recent study of 140 people who were hospitalized for COVID-19 in China (published in the journal Allergy) found that asthma was not a risk factor for the infection.

“There is some suspicion people with asthma may be more likely to get infected because they are frequently on steroids, which can affect the immune system,” says Dr. Stewart. “Nevertheless, they need to remain on their inhaled steroid or oral steroid to control their asthma.” 

So what can people with asthma do to protect themselves from the new coronavirus and reduce their risk for COVID-19? 

Extra vigilance is called for, says Dr. Stewart. That means following the guidelines for hand-washing, disinfecting surfaces, practicing social distancing, and avoiding crowds.

The CDC has published additional guidelines for people with asthma. It’s crucial to keep following your asthma action plan and taking your asthma medication exactly as prescribed, per the guidelines. They also advise making sure you have an emergency stash of prescription meds, such as asthma inhalers, as well as a 30-day supply of non-prescription meds and supplies—just in case you need to stay home for a long time. 

On March 20, the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) warned that some parts of the US are experiencing a shortage of albuterol quick-relief inhalers, which are “rescue” inhalers used to relieve acute asthma symptoms or attacks very quickly by opening the airways. 

The shortage is due to supply chain issues and increased demand in hospitals for albuterol inhalers to treat COVID-19 patients who go into respiratory distress, the ACAAI stated. 

If you have asthma and can’t get hold of an albuterol inhaler, your doctor can prescribe another type, such as a levalbuterol inhaler, Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist and immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network, tells Health. 

However, Dr. Parikh says the best way to avoid needing rescue meds for an asthma attack is to take your controller meds properly—even if you feel well—and stay home to avoid potential triggers and infections. Remember, it’s spring allergy season, so that could be triggering your asthma as well, she adds. 

Besides avoiding your asthma triggers, clean and disinfect all surfaces in your home that are touched frequently, such as tables, doorknobs, handles, light switches, toilets, and sinks. Just make sure you avoid using cleaning products that can cause an asthma attack. 

Strong emotions can also trigger an asthma attack, so do what you can to relieve anxiety and stress. That’s not easy right now—the COVID-19 crisis is having a huge impact on the mental health of many people. To look after your emotional and mental well-being, the CDC recommends limiting your exposure to news. And when you do check the headlines, make sure it’s from a reliable source, such as local government authorities and reputable media sites. 

If you’re feeling low due to stress or isolation, share your concerns with a friend, family member, clergy member, doctor, or counselor. You can also contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) Disaster Distress Hotline at 1-800-985-5990.

Don’t forget about simple general health measures, adds Dr. Stewart. Adequate sleep, good nutrition and hydration, and regular moderate exercise are more important than ever during this time. 

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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