Asthma is a chronic lung disease. When asthma strikes, airways in the lungs become swollen and constricted, causing coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. Allergic rhinitis, also called hay fever, is an allergic response by your immune system to pollens, mold, and dust. Symptoms include a stuffy, runny, or itchy nose, and sneezing. Asthma and allergic rhinitis are triggered by many of the same allergens. Because asthma and allergies are so common and frequently occur together, many people want to know about preventing or avoiding these conditions.
An allergen is a substance in the environment that may cause our bodies to react with an allergic or asthmatic reaction. Common allergens include pollen, animal dander, mold, dust mites, latex, certain foods, insect bites and stings, certain plants, and medications. We are exposed to some allergens all the time, but most of us encounter these troublemakers without experiencing any symptoms at all. For these people, their body simply does not react to allergens.
For millions of people, though, an excessive immune response to allergens triggers a cascade of unpleasant symptoms. These symptoms are sometimes mild, but can be severe, or rarely, even fatal. Allergic symptoms most commonly include itching of the eyes, throat, or skin, sneezing, nasal congestion, coughing, wheezing, or rash.
Typically, allergic substances enter the body in one or more of the following ways:
- Absorption through the skin (latex)
- Inhalation through the mouth or nose (pollen or dust mites)
- Ingestion (foods or medications)
- Injection (insect bites and stings)
Asthma is a condition in which the lungs react to some kind of irritation with mucous production and airway narrowing from muscle contraction and inflammation along the breathing pathway. This reaction may occur moments after exposure to an irritant or after several hours have passed. Allergens are a common cause of asthmatic reactions, but similar symptoms can be produced by non-allergen sources, like inhaling chemicals that irritant the lungs or viral infections.
An asthma episode may include difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, or other respiratory symptoms. Asthma is usually controllable with treatment. In between “attacks,” or after treatment, the lungs usually return to normal.
Exposure to tobacco smoke may trigger asthma in children because smoke is an irritant. Other triggers include exercise, cold air, and allergens like dust mites, mold, pollen, and animal dander. Food allergies can also trigger an asthma episode in some people. Foods like shellfish and peanuts can be asthma triggers.
The Allergy-Asthma Connection
It is possible for children to have allergies but not asthma, or to have asthma without allergies, but the two conditions often occur together. Eczema and hay fever are common conditions associated with asthma.
For some people, the connection between asthma and allergies lies in their body’s similar biologic response to otherwise harmless environmental triggers. If you have allergies and/or asthma, your body is attempting to protect itself from substances it perceives to be dangerous. Unfortunately, this protective reaction triggers the release of body chemicals that cause results like sneezing, congestion, itchy red eyes, skin rash and/or wheezing, shortness of breath, and cough. With allergic asthma, the allergic reaction may be confined to the airways, or may include other forms of allergy that affect the skin, eyes, or ears.
Putting Knowledge Into Action
You cannot change genetics, but you can do a number of things to safeguard your home and family against allergies and asthma. While developing allergies and/or asthma may be inevitable for some, following these tips may lessen the severity and frequency of episodes for people who are at high risk:
- Control exposure to smoke - Do not smoke at all but, if you do, smoke outside. Never smoke in a car that children ride in, even if your child is not in the car at the time. Wood smoke also may be an asthma risk; avoid wood heating. Make sure that gas heaters and stoves are vented to the outside. These appliances produce combustion products that can irritate the lungs.
- Control exposure to dust mites - Dust mites are microscopic creatures that are found in large quantities in your home. They tend to live in bedding, but are far too small to be seen. There is little evidence to support that using zippered plastic covers on pillows and mattresses helps control dust mite exposure, but some strategies to reduce exposure to mites include:
- Wash all linens in hot water every seven days.
- Vacuum carpeting and upholstered furniture frequently using a vacuum cleaner with a “HEPA” filter.
- Keep the humidity inside your home to less than 50%.
- Controlling exposure to pets may be an option, though evidence is inconsistent. In some studies, exposure to pets at a very young age was associated with less risk of allergies.
- Be aware that latex paints, chipboard furniture, and some rugs may release certain chemicals that can cause wheezing in children. If you can, choose to live away from busy highways. This will reduce any risk from automobile and truck exhaust.
- Other sources of allergies include cockroaches, rodents, and mold. Careful cleaning of bathrooms and repairing leaky pipes can help reduce mold from growing.
- Food is an important trigger for some children. Breastfeeding may help reduce the incidence of allergies, as well as asthma.
Knowing the underlying types, causes, and triggers of both asthma and allergies is the foundation of putting effective prevention and treatment strategies into action.