Asthma and pneumonia are two respiratory conditions. They share some symptoms, but they have different causes and treatments. Pneumonia may be more difficult to detect in people with asthma.
In this article, we look at the link between asthma and pneumonia, explore symptoms and diagnoses, and discuss the differences between these conditions in children and adults.
Asthma and pneumonia are conditions that affect the lungs.
Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition that results in narrowing and inflammation of the bronchiole airways.
Symptoms come and go over time and in response to triggers. They vary from person to person, but they often include:
- difficulty breathing
- tightening of the chest
Wheezing and coughing tend to occur during an asthma attack, making breathing more difficult.
Triggers of an asthma attack include but are not limited to:
- typical allergens, such as pet dander, pollen, mold, and dust
- chemical fumes
- air pollution
- cold, dry weather
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by bacteria, fungi, parasites, or viruses. It can affect one or both lungs.
Bacterial pneumonia is by far the most common type of pneumonia in adults.
Like asthma, pneumonia causes lung inflammation, though it affects the air sacs — called alveoli — at the end of the bronchiole airways. An accumulation of pus or fluid in the air sacs makes breathing difficult.
Asthma does not directly cause pneumonia, but people with chronic lung problems are more likely to develop pneumonia, due to previous lung damage or weakness in lung tissue.
For the same reason, a person with asthma may have more severe symptoms and complications from colds and the flu.
The flu can lead to pneumonia and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Adults and children with asthma are more likely to develop pneumonia after getting sick with flu than people who do not have asthma.”
Some researchers believe that asthma medications may play a role. One study suggests that inhaled corticosteroids — a main treatment option for asthma — might increase the risk of developing pneumonia or other respiratory infections.
Furthermore, some research indicates that young adults with asthma might experience “excess exacerbations” of the condition following pneumonia. The authors reported that the study group had made more frequent asthma-related hospital visits after having pneumonia.
The symptoms of asthma and pneumonia can be similar, which can make pneumonia difficult for doctors to spot.
Both asthma and pneumonia can cause:
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- an increased respiratory rate
- an increased pulse
However, the conditions can also cause different symptoms.
A person with asthma who suspects that they have pneumonia should look for:
- mucus in their cough
- a fever
- chest pain while coughing
- a crackling sound when they try to breathe in
If any of these symptoms are present, see a doctor.
A typical asthma flare-up involves coughing, wheezing, and a feeling of tightness in the chest. A decrease in lung function results in difficulty breathing and an increased pulse. The wheezing may be high-pitched and whistling.
Uncomfortable asthma symptoms can last from a few minutes to several hours. Symptoms may flare up suddenly, and some people call these episodes asthma attacks.
When a person has pneumonia, the initial symptoms may be similar to those of a typical cold or flu. As the lung infection evolves, green, yellow, or bloody mucus may accompany coughing.
Common symptoms of pneumonia include, but are not limited to:
- a loss of appetite
- shortness of breath
- clammy skin
- fever and chills
- chest pain that worsens with coughing or breathing
Pneumonia can also cause a crackling sound while breathing.
When pneumonia results from a virus, symptoms tend to include muscle pain and a dry cough from the very beginning. As the infection continues, the cough tends to worsen, and a person may produce mucus.
When pneumonia is caused by bacteria, a person may have a high fever. Fevers of this degree come with their own side effects, including delirium and confusion. In severe cases of pneumonia, the lips or nail beds might turn blue as a result of a lack of oxygen.
If a person does not receive treatment, asthma and pneumonia can be life-threatening respiratory diseases.
While asthma has no cure, symptoms tend to respond well to monitoring and appropriate treatments.
In some cases, a person can recover from pneumonia within a week, while in others it may take at least a month.
Because inflammation in the lungs can lead to an asthma attack, the airway dysfunction related to pneumonia can bring on a serious attack and cause severe complications.
As bacteria or viruses replicate inside lung tissue, the body’s natural immune defenses begin to flood the lungs with mucus. This makes breathing more difficult, and it causes a person to cough.
The mucus blocks the airways, which constrict in response to inflammation, causing a lack of oxygen exchange in the body. As a result, the lungs must exert more effort, which can worsen chest pain.
It is best to treat asthma and pneumonia as early as possible to prevent the conditions from worsening.
The main difference is that asthma is a chronic, noninfectious condition, whereas pneumonia is a lung infection.
Asthma causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways. It mainly affects the bronchioles, which are the tiny branches of the airways in the lungs.
Asthma is not a curable disease, though a person can manage its symptoms with the right medications. Asthma triggers can lessen over time and as a person learns to manage their illness.
Pneumonia is an infection that can occur in one or both of the lungs. It causes inflammation in the air sacs, not the bronchioles.
Pneumonia can cause the lungs to fill with fluid, making breathing painful and difficult. It is treatable.
While asthma and pneumonia can cause many similar symptoms, they are different diseases with different treatment and care approaches.
It is important for people with asthma to understand the link with pneumonia.
While one condition does not cause the other, people with asthma are more likely to develop pneumonia. If this happens, they have a greater risk of complications.
Early treatment and preventive techniques are key to reducing the risk of these complications.