Is it asthma or allergies?

Living Well

Spring allergy season brings its own set of challenges for allergy sufferers, but the season can be even more difficult for those with asthma as well. Many individuals are confused by asthma and allergy symptoms because they are so similar, and often these two conditions are directly related to one another.

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, more than 25 million Americans with asthma also have allergies, which is called allergic asthma. This condition occurs when asthma symptoms are triggered by airborne substances, such as pollen, pet dander, mold and other allergens that are present in the surrounding environment.

But not all allergy sufferers have asthma and understanding the differences between these conditions is key to managing one's symptoms of either condition. Let's examine the key characteristics of asthma and allergies from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA).

Asthma

Asthma is an incurable condition in which breathing passages narrow and produce more mucous than normal, which can trigger breathing difficulties like wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. Asthma can be triggered by a number of factors, but typically asthma is triggered by exercise, workplace irritants (dust, chemicals, gases) or allergens that are present in the environment.

Allergies

Allergies are a direct immune response after allergens enter or come into contact with the body and produce an allergic reaction. These allergic responses are caused by the body's natural ability to produce antibodies, which typically ward off foreign invaders and fight infections in the body. However, when an allergen (such as dust, pollen or pet dander) is introduced to the immune system, antibodies will recognize this as a potential threat (when it is actually harmless), and will trigger an immune system response that can manifest itself as sinus, digestive system, skin or respiratory issues.

How do these two conditions relate?

While allergies can trigger asthma symptoms, the primary difference between an allergic reaction and an asthma attack is where it occurs within the body, reports Health Guidance. Allergens trigger a response in the upper respiratory system, while asthma attacks affect the lungs and upper bronchial passages. In the case of allergic asthma, allergens are the primary driver of the triggering of asthma symptoms, which presents unique challenges from a treatment perspective.

As such, individuals who have both allergies and asthma will have to take more advanced steps to control their conditions and minimize their symptoms. The vast majority of medical treatments will treat either asthma or allergies, but some can also treat both conditions. According to the Mayo Clinic, these include:

  • Allergy Shots: Regular allergy shots are a form of immunotherapy that helps to treat both asthma and allergy symptoms by gradually reducing the body's immune system response to particular allergy triggers. For this treatment to be effective, allergy shots are administered over a period of 3-5 years to ultimately diminish allergic and asthmatic reactions.
  • Anti-immunoglobulin E (IgE) therapy: Coming into contact with an allergen will trigger an immune response in the body which consists of a release of antibodies to attack the allergen, which are referred to as lgE. This sparks the release of histamine, which causes an inflammatory effect in the body that results in allergic reactions. Medications such as omalizumab (Xonair) directly interferes with lgE in the body to help prevent histamine release and subsequent allergic reactions.
  • Leukotriene Modifiers: These medicines are used to control the symptoms of allergic rhinitis or allergies, as well as tackling asthma attacks as well. These drugs block the action of leukotrienes, which are chemicals released by the immune system that cause tightening of breathing passages and the production of excess mucous. The most common of these is Montelukast (Singulair).

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