Pneumonia vs. asthma: Differences, risk factors, causes, and treatment

By: Emily Lunardo | General Health | Friday, June 10, 2016 - 01:00 PM

Pretty blonde using asthma inhalerPneumonia and asthma can both impair a person’s ability to breathe, but their causes and treatments are vastly different. Asthma is a chronic condition one lives with and manages. Pneumonia, on the other hand, is a temporary lung condition that people can recover from. One aspect to note is, people who live with asthma are at an increased risk for pneumonia, and pneumonia with asthma can be far more severe and there is also a chance that your pneumonia can be contagious.

Although different, asthma and pneumonia do share some similarities when it comes to symptoms. For example, in both pneumonia and asthma, patients will experience shortness of breath, cough, and an increase in pulse and respiratory rates.

Here we will outline the causes, risk factors, symptoms, and treatments for both asthma and pneumonia, so you can have a better understanding of both conditions.

Connection between pneumonia and asthma

For starters, it is well known that asthma sufferers are at a higher risk of developing pneumonia. Furthermore, having pneumonia in asthma increases the risk of asthma attacks. And even when pneumonia has been cured in asthma, asthma patients often have abnormal pulmonary results lasting months after pneumonia has cleared. There is even some minor evidence to suggest that the underlying causes of asthma and pneumonia may be the same.

Although the conditions differ from each other, the real connection between the two comes in form of the heightened risk of contracting pneumonia along with the greater complications caused by pneumonia in asthma – experienced by asthma sufferers. This is how pneumonia and asthma are connected.

Can asthma cause pneumonia?

The FDA has set out warnings that certain asthma medications may increase the risk of pneumonia in patients. In clinical studies, pneumonia rates were found to be higher among those taking medications to treat COPD, compared to individuals who did not take inhaled drugs.

On the other hand, pneumonia cases are often more common in those over the age of 65, and such increases have not been seen in younger asthma sufferers.

Although there may be a slight risk of pneumonia in asthma, it should not scare you from continuing your medications to manage asthma as worsened complications may arise from stopping your treatment plan without doctor’s approval.

Speak to your doctor about your risk of pneumonia if you have asthma. If you are over the age of 60, obtaining the pneumonia vaccine can help reduce your risk.

Can pneumonia cause asthma?

There is some evidence that pneumonia may contribute to asthma. Mycoplasma pneumoniae is responsible for the development of walking pneumonia, and researchers have found these bacteria can contribute to chronic infection and chronic inflammation of the lungs, which could lead to asthma even if the infection itself is cleared up.

Mycoplasma pneumoniae is often detected in children with asthma, and up to 40 percent of children infected with mycoplasma pneumoniae will have wheezing and abnormal pulmonary function tests.

Although asthma may not necessarily cause pneumonia, there is a body of supporting evidence that the underlying causes of asthma may play a role in the development of pneumonia.

Asthma and pneumonia: U.S. prevalence

The CDC reports that one in 14 Americans live with asthma, with a total of about 24 million Americans suffering the condition. Of these, 7.4 percent are adults and 8.6 percent are children. As you can see, asthma is more common in children than adults, and boys develop asthma more often than girls.

Every day, an estimated 10 Americans die of asthma, and many of these deaths are avoidable and preventable. Since 1999, asthma-related deaths have increased by 26 percent. African Americans are at a higher risk of death by asthma than other ethnic groups.

Children and seniors are at the highest risk for complications and even death resulting from pneumonia. In 2015, 922,000 children under the age of five died as a result of pneumonia worldwide. In the U.S., pneumonia-related deaths were 53,282 in 2010, with 1.1 million Americans being discharged from the hospital after pneumonia recovery.

Pneumonia with asthma: Risk factors and complications

Factors that increase a person’s risk of developing asthma include having a blood relative with asthma, having another allergic condition, being overweight, being a smoker, being exposed to secondhand smoke, exhaust fumes or pollution, as well as occupational triggers such as hairspray or chemicals used in farming.

If asthma is not well managed, the risk of complications rises. Complications related to unmanaged asthma include sleep interference, days off from work and school, permanent narrowing of bronchial tubes that affects breathing, emergency room visits, and side effects associated with medications.

Risk factors for pneumonia include being under the age of two or over the age of 65, having a chronic illness, having a weakened or suppressed immune system, smoking, and being hospitalized.

Complications of pneumonia include lung abscesses, bacteria in the bloodstream, fluid accumulation in and around the lungs, and difficulty breathing. If you are older with a weakened immune system, pneumonia can even be life-threatening.

Pneumonia vs. asthma: Differences in symptoms and causes

There are different types of pneumonia, and you can tell the cause of a particular type from its name. For starters, there is community-acquired pneumonia, which is caused by bacteria, bacteria-like organisms, viruses, and fungus. The name means that it is contracted outside of the healthcare setting – that is, in a general public setting.

Other types of pneumonia include hospital-acquired pneumonia, which is quite serious as it may be antibiotic resistant; health care-acquired pneumonia, which is a bacterial infection; and aspiration pneumonia, which occurs when you inhale food, drink, vomit, or saliva into the lungs.

Pneumonia symptoms typically involve cough with phlegm, fever with chills, absent appetite, confusion, chest pains worsening with breathing or coughing, headaches, shortness of breath, and fatigue.

The cause of asthma is unclear, but it could be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Some common triggers of asthma include airborne allergens, respiratory infections, physical activity, cold air, air pollutants, certain medications, strong emotions and stress, sulfites and preservatives, and GERD.

Symptoms of asthma include shortness of breath, chest tightness or pain, trouble sleeping due to breathing difficulties, whistling or wheezing sound when exhaling, and coughing.

Pneumonia and asthma: Diagnosis and treatment

In case of pneumonia, your doctor will analyze your sputum to determine if the cause is bacterial or viral. A chest X-ray will also be conducted. Your doctor may run blood work to check your white blood cell count, which can reveal severity of the illness. High levels of white blood cells indicate that your body is warding off a more serious infection.

Treatment for pneumonia often relies on antibiotics, fever reducers, and cough medicines. Hospitalization for pneumonia may be required for those over the age of 65, in case of a continuous vomiting that prevents the ingestion of antibiotics, when breathing becomes rapid, heart rate is slowing down, blood pressure drops, or when a patient becomes confused about time and space.

Pneumonia prevention starts with vaccination if you are in a high-risk category, good hygiene, and smoking cessation. Keep your immune system strong through proper nutrition, regular exercise, and proper sleep.

There are several tests you doctor will conduct to diagnose asthma, beginning with a physical examination. Your doctor will first rule out other respiratory infections and then proceed to run tests to diagnose asthma.

Asthma diagnostic tests include spirometry, which estimates the narrowing of your bronchial tubes, and peak flow, which measures how hard you breathe out. Additional tests include methacholine challenge, nitric oxide test, imaging tests, allergy testing, sputum eosinophils, and provocative testing for exercise and cold-induced asthma.

Treatment for asthma is life-long and often involves inhaled medications including inhaled corticosteroids. Other medications used to treat asthma include leukotriene modifiers, long-acting beta agonists, combination inhalers, and quick-relief medications for rapid, short-term relief of asthma symptoms.

Working closely with your doctor can help you develop an asthma control plan, which includes your triggers and medication dosages. Regular check-ups with your doctor can also see the progress of your asthma and make any required changes to your asthma control plan.

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