Jul 25, 2023
The Intricate Link Between Allergies and Asthma
6 minute read
Allergies are extremely common across all age groups. In the United States alone, over 50 million people have some type of allergy.
Allergic reactions can exhibit an array of physical symptoms throughout the body, including respiratory inflammation. In fact, there is an interesting link between allergies and asthma, which is a chronic condition caused by inflammation and tightening of the airways.
Approximately 20 million Americans are diagnosed with asthma, with 60% of them reportedly experiencing asthma-related symptoms as a part of an allergic response.
Allergies are the body’s negative reaction to normally harmless substances. Allergic reactions happen when the immune system identifies a specific foreign protein as an allergen and creates antibodies that form immunoglobulin E (IgE).
When the allergen proteins enter the bloodstream, the IgE antibodies attack and bind them to the body’s mast cells, which releases histamine and creates the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Allergic reactions differ in severity depending on the allergen, but some symptoms can include:
- Runny, stuffy, or itchy nose
- Itchy and watery eyes
- Hives or localized itching
- Nausea, vomiting, and other gastrointestinal issues
Allergens that can lead to these types of reactions include:
- Food allergens: The most common food allergens include milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish. Some allergic reactions to food can result in anaphylaxis – a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction that requires immediate medical attention.
- Medications: Some people experience allergic reactions to common over-the-counter and prescription medications such as antibiotics, insulin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and certain chemotherapy drugs.
- Latex: Allergic skin irritation can develop after repeated contact with the natural rubber latex.
- Stinging insects: The venom in certain insect stings can cause allergic reactions similar to anaphylaxis. These insects may include bees, hornets, wasps, and fire ants.
- Inhalant allergies: Airborne substances that commonly cause allergic reactions include pet dander and hair, dust mites, pollen, and molds. Inhalant allergies are often linked to worsening symptoms of asthma.
Pathophysiology of Asthma
Asthma is caused by irritated cells in the airways restricting the flow of air, which can make breathing difficult.
During an asthma episode or more severe asthma attack, the mucus lining the throat tightens and clogs the airway. This can lead to wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness – all of which make breathing increasingly difficult.
Asthma varies from person to person, but is typically triggered by airborne particles such as:
- Air pollutants
- Viral infections
- Inhalant allergens
The Interplay Between Allergies and Asthma
Allergic asthma — or asthma as a symptom of an allergic reaction — occurs when you breathe in an allergen, and your body responds with an asthmatic episode or attack, with varying symptom severity.
Allergies and asthma often occur together, specifically when symptoms are present in the nasal and throat passages. Allergic rhinitis – allergic reactions manifesting as nasal congestion, sinus pressure, and post nasal drip – is most relevant to allergic asthma, as the two can trigger worsening symptoms in the sinuses, lungs, and throat.
One thing to remember is the potential severity of allergic asthma. When an allergic reaction triggers asthmatic symptoms, the episode can be worse than chronic asthma.
A severe asthma attack may present typical symptoms of asthma, in addition to:
- Being too breathless to speak or eat
- A fast heartbeat
- Drowsiness, confusion, or dizziness
- Blue lips or fingers
The allergic march
Sometimes, the connection between allergies and asthma happens gradually, as seen with the “allergic march”. This is the observed progression of allergic diseases from infancy to adulthood. If someone presents with symptoms of skin allergies – specifically eczema – as a child, they are more likely to slowly develop different allergies and reactions, culminating in allergic asthma.
According to a study of the “allergic march,” ⅓ of patients who presented with eczema as an allergic reaction in infancy developed asthma as they grew older.
It is important to note that many people who have allergic reactions as children will grow out of their allergies and never develop asthma. That being said, the connection between the two conditions is undeniable.
Managing Allergies and Asthma
Due to the connection between allergies and asthma, there is a link between the two when it comes to getting these conditions under control. Proper management of both asthma and allergies is essential to living a fulfilling, productive life.
- Antihistamines: Prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medications that block some of histamine’s effects on the body.
- Nasal steroid spray: Short-term relief for nasal or sinus congestion.
- Allergen avoidance: Reducing your exposure to environmental allergens will limit the severity of your reactions.
- Immunotherapy: A preventative treatment for certain allergies where you are gradually given increasing doses of the allergen to desensitize the immune system to the substance.
All of these treatments work to lessen the load on mast cells, decreasing the amount of histamine released in the body and relieving symptoms of allergic reactions. If your asthmatic symptoms are being caused by allergic asthma, these treatments can help relieve those symptoms as well.
If your allergen treatments are not relieving your asthma, you may want to try some additional strategies for managing asthma. These include:
- Long-term asthma control medications: Daily doses of medications taken over a long period of time to decrease the symptoms of asthma. These include corticosteroids, immunomodulators, long-acting beta-agnostics, and more.
- Quick-relief medications: “Rescue” drugs taken to immediately relieve severe asthma symptoms. Oral steroids and short-acting beta-agnostics are some examples.
- Creation of an action plan: An important written tool that is individualized to show you what steps to take to keep your asthma from getting worse. This offers key insight into when to call your healthcare provider or go to the emergency room.
- Avoidance of triggers: It’s crucial to avoid items, activities, or conditions that could exacerbate asthma symptoms.
If you’re living with allergies, asthma, or both, it’s very important you get your symptoms under control. A licensed healthcare professional can help you manage your condition(s) and develop a customized treatment plan. Get personalized allergy and asthma care today with Cleared by LifeMD.
Dr. Payel Gupta
Medically reviewed by Dr. Payel Gupta
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