I’m pretty sure you know someone who suffers from asthma. This chronic inflammation of the lung airways that causes coughing, chest tightness, wheezing, or shortness of breath sends close to 13 million people in the US to see a providers each year. Cases of asthma are higher in children than in adults, and higher in women than in men.
What do allergies and asthma have in common?
Quite a bit, actually. Did you know there are two types of asthma? They are known as extrinsic and intrinsic, also referred to as allergic and non-allergic asthma.
Chronic allergies are the cause of 60% of asthma, and an allergen-specific IgE (Immunoglobulin E) blood test can be done to look for various kinds of allergies.
The less common kind of asthma, intrinsic asthma, is triggered by various non-allergic factors like stress, cold or dry air, smoke, anxiety, viruses, and infections.
When I volunteer in Africa, we routinely see people everyday living with asthma from breathing in smoke from cooking fires and from burning trash. Asthma is often hereditary, but can be so much worse in areas where the air is full of pollen, dust, smoke and other pollutants.
How does an allergic reaction bring on asthma symptoms?
An allergic response occurs when our immune system proteins (our antibodies) react to substances like pollen or pet hair as if they were dangerous invaders. Our immune system releases chemicals that lead to a stuffy nose, nasal drip, itchy eyes, hives, or itchy skin – our own particular allergy symptoms. Some people’s airways and lungs also become inflamed, leading to an asthma attack.
Triggers for Allergenic Asthma from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
Inhaling substances that cause allergies (allergens) can trigger asthma. Knowing what you are allergic to can help you limit contact and prevent asthma episodes.
Common allergens that cause allergic asthma include:
- Dust mites–the saliva, feces and shedding body parts
- Cockroach–also saliva, feces and shedding
- Pet dander
- Rodents–their urine, saliva, or skin
Triggers for Non-allergenic Asthma
- Irritants in the Air– Irritants in the environment can also bring on an asthma episode. Low-income neighborhoods often have more pollutants and higher rates of allergies and asthma. These are not technically allergens but can aggravate inflamed, sensitive airways:
- Smoke from cigarettes
- Air pollution such as smog, ozone and others
- Wood fire smoke
- Charcoal grills
- Strong fumes, vapors or odors (such as paint, gasoline, perfumes and scented soaps)
- Dust and particles in the air
- Exercise and Sports–some people begin to have asthma symptoms after several minutes of sustained exercise, especially in cold weather. This is called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), and can be controlled with proper treatment.
- Weather–cold air, dry wind, or sudden changes in weather can sometimes bring on an asthma episode. Wet or windy weather can cause pollens to break into smaller particles increasing the chance of inhalation.
Allergy and Asthma Treatment
Allergists are medical specialists trained in the diagnosis and treatment of allergic illness and asthma. They help you stay healthy by:
- Monitoring your disease with a peak flow meter– a portable, hand-held device used to test your ability to push air out of your lungs
- Identifying and helping you avoid your allergen triggers
- Using drug therapies including bronchodilators and anti-inflammatory agents– inhaled corticosteroids for normalizing lung function, known as “inhalers”.
- Using leukotriene modifiers (leukotriene antagonists), medicines used to manage allergic rhinitis or allergies, as well as prevent asthma. These drugs work by blocking the action of leukotrienes, the chemicals that cause the airways to narrow and tighten.
What about allergy shots?
In severe cases, or when triggers are unavoidable, immunotherapy, or allergy shots, are a form of treatment. Immunotherapy involves getting regular injections of an extremely small amount of the allergens that trigger your symptoms. The idea is for your immune system to build up a tolerance to the allergens over time, so your allergic reactions will calm down. This lessens asthma symptoms as well. This treatment generally requires regular injections over a period of time.
Know Your Triggers and Get the Right Treatment
If you are suffering, do see an allergist and learn what is triggering your allergy and asthma symptoms. And stay tuned for an upcoming blog about how to keep your house and workplace as allergen-free as possible.