Is it allergic asthma or something else?

Allergies & Asthma
Allergic asthma is a type of asthma that causes symptoms when a person is around certain triggers, for example, pet dander. These allergens lead to an immune system response that affects the lungs and makes it harder to breathe.

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology, allergic asthma is the most common asthma type.

Allergies can be dangerous if they cause a life-threatening response known as anaphylaxis.

In allergic asthma, as well as nonallergic asthma, an asthma attack, or exacerbation, can also be fatal occasionally. As a result, a person may wish to talk to their doctor about identifying asthma triggers to reduce the likelihood of an attack.

Symptoms

Woman with shortness of breath holding chest in pain looking out of window
Asthma can cause breathing difficulties, such as shortness of breath.

Asthma symptoms can range from mild to severe.

Some of the symptoms include:

  • chest tightness
  • coughing
  • problems breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing

People will usually notice these symptoms become worse when they have exposure to certain triggers, which can include allergens.

A serious asthma attack can cause severe airway swelling that makes it difficult to breathe at all. A person may then require emergency medical treatment to help them breathe.


Causes

Doctors do not know exactly why some people have allergic asthma, and others do not, although it can run in families.

People with allergic asthma are also more likely to have atopic dermatitis, eczema, and allergic rhinitis or hay fever, as are other family members.

Researchers continue to study information on different gene variations that may make a person more prone to allergic asthma. They are also examining how people with different genes respond to treatments. For example, people with specific genes may not respond to certain treatments.

Each individual with allergic asthma may have different triggers. For some people, these allergens cause no symptoms. In others, they can make breathing difficult and trigger an asthma attack.

Some of the most common allergens are:

  • cockroaches, including their saliva, feces, and body parts
  • dust mites
  • mold
  • pet dander, such as from dogs or cats
  • pollen from plants, including grasses, trees, and weeds

When a person is sensitive to a particular allergen and experiences exposure to it, their immune system starts releasing the compound immunoglobulin E, or IgE. Excess IgE in the body can then trigger the release of other substances that may cause airway inflammation.

Excess amounts of IgE can lead to a process that makes the airways smaller. Breathing through smaller airways is more difficult than through larger ones. The result can be an asthma attack.

Diagnosis

Doctors will begin diagnosing allergic asthma by asking a person about their symptoms, including what makes these better or worse.

Next, a doctor may perform respiratory function tests to determine the impact on the airways. They may also undertake skin testing to determine if a person has a reaction to specific allergens.

Allergic asthma is different from other types of asthma because it triggers an immune system response. Other asthma types are a reaction to other irritants that cause the airways to get smaller or open and close more easily. Physical activity, exposure to smoke, or having a respiratory infection can lead to an asthma exacerbation in these asthma types.

The most definitive sign of allergic asthma is when an individual tests positive for an allergen, along with having asthma symptoms after exposure to that allergen. Finding this out can help a doctor determine whether allergic asthma is the cause.


Treating allergic asthma at home

Man vacuuming house with hoover
A vacuum with a HEPA filter can help manage dust levels.

Avoidance of triggers is the first and most important way to prevent allergic asthma symptoms.

If a person is allergic to pet dander, they should avoid the pets known to cause allergic reactions.

For people allergic to dust mites, there are other steps they can take at home to reduce their risk of exposure to these mites.

Examples include:

  • Placing allergen-proof bed coverings over pillows and mattresses: These help to keep dust mites that might trigger an allergic reaction away from bedding.
  • Using a vacuum cleaner with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter: This reduces the amount of dust present when cleaning.
  • Washing bedding regularly: People should do this using a high water temperature to remove dust mites as well as other potential allergy-causing substances.
  • Keeping dust to a minimum: People can do this in the home by washing clothes and toys regularly, especially stuffed toys, as well as dusting with damp rags to minimize dust in the air.

Keeping the home clean and mold-free can often help reduce the potential triggers for allergic asthma.

Medical treatments

There is no cure for asthma. However, there are medical treatments that can prevent allergic reactions as well as treat asthma symptoms.

Doctors may also prescribe treatments to reduce airway irritation if a person experiences an asthma attack, and to prevent asthma symptoms and airway inflammation over the long term.

Examples of these treatments include:

  • Short-acting inhalers: These medications quickly open up the airways, helping a person breathe more easily. Doctors often call them rescue inhalers because a person can use them quickly when they are having a hard time breathing.
  • Long-acting inhalers: People use these medications to keep the airways open for a longer period than short-acting inhalers.
  • Inhaled corticosteroids: This medication helps to reduce airway inflammation and prevent asthma symptoms.
  • Leukotriene modifiers: These drugs reduce the amount of airway swelling in some of those with asthma. They can also relax the airways, ideally making it easier to breathe.

In addition to medications to treat breathing symptoms, a doctor may recommend taking medications to reduce the body’s response to allergen exposure. These drugs are more helpful for people with other allergy symptoms in addition to asthma.

Many medications are available over the counter. Examples include:

  • cetirizine, brand name Zyrtec
  • fexofenadine, brand name Allegra
  • loratadine, brand name Claritin
  • levocetirizine, brand name Xyzal

These medications help to block the body’s response to allergens. While they will not cure allergic asthma, they may help reduce the severity of an allergic response.

A doctor may recommend allergy immunotherapy to help someone who has allergic asthma. This is a process that exposes the body to small and increasing amounts of an allergen. Exposure in this way can desensitize a person to the allergen, reducing the chances of their immune system triggering an asthma attack or other symptoms.

Doctors give immunotherapy treatments via shots or tablets that dissolve under the tongue.


Takeaway

Allergic asthma can affect a person’s abilities to go outdoors or go to other people’s homes with pets.

While curing allergic asthma is not possible, many treatments can enhance breathing and improve a person’s overall health.

Avoiding the substances that trigger asthma reactions can help, as can taking medications to reduce the severity of an allergic reaction.

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