The Close Connection Between Allergies and Asthma


Living With Allergies

The Close Connection Between Allergies and Asthma

A man holding a tissue to his face while looking downward.

Photo by Brittany Colette on Unsplash

Allergies are tough to deal with on their own. But, the bad news doesn’t always stop there. For many people, their allergies actually trigger breathing difficulties.

It’s called allergic asthma, and it adds a whole new layer of discomfort to your already-miserable allergy symptoms. If you’re dealing with it, you’ll want to get it under control—and fast. Here’s what you need to know.

What is allergic asthma?

Before we dig into the allergic variation, let’s back up to the basics. As the American Lung Association explains, asthma itself is a chronic condition in which a person’s airways in their lungs are often inflamed.

That inflammation makes the lungs far more sensitive to asthma triggers. So, when they’re exposed to one, the airways swell even more. That leads to asthma symptoms like wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath—or, put more simply, an asthma attack.

With that in mind, allergic asthma happens when those symptoms are triggered by an allergen. As the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) explains, allergens can include:

  • Cockroaches
  • Dust mites
  • Mold
  • Pets
  • Pollen

Not everybody has the same triggers. You might be allergic to pollen, while your friend is allergic to pet dander.

When your body pickus up and reacts to one of your triggers, you have an allergic reaction. But, if you have allergic asthma, you not only experience the classic allergy symptoms like itchy eyes and a stuffy nose, but also an asthma attack.

It’s not fun, but it’s surprisingly common. The AAFA reports that 60% of people who have asthma actually have allergen triggers.

How is allergic asthma related to regular asthma?

Regular and allergic asthma have a lot in common, because they’re both related to the swelling of the lungs and airways. Even their symptoms are identical. People will experience chest tightness, coughing, difficulty breathing, and wheezing.

So, why bother distinguishing between the two types? Well, it all comes back to their triggers.

Remember, allergic asthma is brought on when somebody is exposed to an allergen. However, the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology explains that there are a number of other common triggers for the non-allergic type, such as:

  • Airborne irritants like cigarette smoke, chemical fumes, or odors
  • Common colds
  • Drugs
  • Exercise
  • Stress
  • Weather (particularly when it’s really cold, dry, or windy)

To put it simply: Allergic and regular asthma have the same symptoms, but different causes.

What does allergic asthma feel like?

Typical allergy symptoms are already an uncomfortable nuisance, but throwing breathing difficulties into the mix can be debilitating. After all, it’s tough to carry on with your day when you feel like you aren’t getting adequate oxygen.

People who have allergic asthma can experience common allergy symptoms like:

  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny or itchy nose
  • Scratchy throat
  • Sneezing

But on top of that, they’ll also deal with airway and lung symptoms like:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing

If you’re experiencing a combination of the above symptoms, it’s best to speak with a medical professional to get a better grasp on what you’re dealing with—and how to treat it.

How does a doctor diagnose allergic asthma?

Once you decide to talk to a doctor, how will they figure out what’s going on? There are a number of strategies they’ll use to confirm the root of your symptoms.

They’ll start by asking you about your symptoms, current medications, and family history (since asthma does seem to have a hereditary component). You’ll also discuss any potential environmental factors, like whether you have pets at home or live with a smoker.

In terms of actual diagnostic tests, your doctor will likely complete a physical exam. If they think it’s necessary, they might also do some more comprehensive tests like:

  • An X-ray of your lungs
  • A lung function test to assess your breathing:
    • Spirometry: You blow into a mouth piece that measures inhalation and exhalation.
    • Peak airflow: You breathe into a sensitive handheld device that measures how well you’re moving air.
    • FeNo test: You breathe into a device that measures the amount of nitric oxide you’re breathing out. High levels can indicate airway inflammation.
    • Provocation test: Probably the least fun test of all, your doctor will expose you to your supposed trigger and monitor the results.

Don’t worry—none of these tests should be all that uncomfortable, and they get you one step closer to understanding how to take control of your symptoms.

What’s the best treatment for allergic asthma?

Let’s say you found out that you have allergic asthma. Now what?

You don’t need to resign yourself to a life or allergy season filled with shallow breathing. There are a number of treatment options that can help you get some relief, including:

Asthma control medications: These are taken on a regular basis to help prevent and control your asthma attacks. This category includes things like inhaled corticosteroids and medications called leukotriene modifiers, which block the chemicals that tighten airways.

Rescue medications: These are taken when you’re already experiencing symptoms and need to get some fast relief. This is most commonly an albuterol inhaler (often known as a rescue inhaler).

Antihistamines: These are taken to control your classic allergy symptoms, and have also been proven to help with keeping your airways open. Antihistamines are particularly effective when taken with an asthma control medication.

In addition to medications, it’s also helpful to avoid your triggers. So, if you know that being around pets kick starts your symptoms, a medical professional will likely recommend minimizing your exposure to that allergen.

People with especially severe allergic asthma might need to explore other treatment options like allergy shots or specialized medications called biologics (such as Xolair® or Dupixent®).

Allergies are already difficult enough to deal with. But, allergic asthma really takes things up a notch and makes it that much more important for you to know your triggers and how to manage your symptoms.

With that information, you can ensure you’re prepped and ready with the right treatment options and breathe a little easier—quite literally.

Article Reviewed By

Amina H. Abdeldaim, MD MPH, Picnic Medical Director

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