The same substances that trigger an allergic reaction also can exacerbate asthma, so understanding the two conditions can help you protect yourself.
In medical terms, an allergy such as hay fever is an inflammation of the mucus membranes in the nasal passages. When these areas are exposed to pollen, dust mites or other allergens, they produce antibodies as part of an immune response.
The antibodies attach to “mast cells” and signal those cells to release mediators — that is, histamines and leukotrienes. These mediators cause the sneezing, runny nose, congestion and itchy, watery eyes typical of allergy symptoms. Middle-ear infections usually coincide with allergy symptoms. Allergy and asthma patients often have eczema because the mediators cause itching and rash when released onto the skin.
While the allergies that you might be suffering now are seasonal (such as to sage, ragweed or other plants), other allergies are perennial (such as to dust or pet hair).
Allergies and asthma are related about 20 percent of the time, and allergies can constrict airways in the lungs and require hospitalization for asthma patients.
Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease that involves the small airways in the lungs and causes airflow limitation. During an asthma attack, the muscles around the airways in the lungs tighten and the lining of the air passages swell. This reduces the amount of air that can flow through the lungs and leads to wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightening and coughing.
In sensitive people, inhaling substances that cause an allergic reaction (called allergens or triggers) can cause an asthma attack. Common asthma triggers include dust, mold, pet hair or dander, pollen, tobacco smoke and chemicals in the air or in food. Having asthma as a result of an allergic reaction is known as allergic asthma.
Asthma most often strikes first in childhood or adolescence. A family history of allergies is a major risk factor for allergic asthma. Having hay fever or other allergies yourself also increases your risk of getting asthma.
Some medications can treat both allergic reactions and asthma. A leukotrienes modifier, such as montelukast (brand name Singulair), helps control the mediator released during an allergic reaction.
As another remedy, immunotherapy through allergy shots gradually reduces the immune system response to allergy triggers by allowing the immune system to build up a tolerance for the allergen. This in turn causes asthma symptoms to decrease.
Although allergic asthma is one of the most common kinds of asthma, other types of asthma have different kinds of triggers. For example, exercise, infections, cold air or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can trigger asthma in some people. Many people have more than one kind of asthma trigger.
Your first stop when seeking relief should be your family medicine physician. He or she can help you identify the substances that trigger your allergies or asthma. Then you can learn to control your exposure to those triggers. The physician can prescribe medications and refer you to a specialist if that is necessary.
Northern Nevada Medical Group has primary care physicians accepting new patients. They can treat allergies and asthma as well as provide primary care for a variety of illnesses and injuries. To make an appointment, call 352-5300.
Joseph Teichgraeber, MD, is an internal medicine physician with Northern Nevada Medical Group. Dr. Teichgraeber is board certified in internal medicine, and earned his medical degree at the University of Kansas and completed his residency at the University of Nebraska. Dr. Teichgraeber is located at Vista Medical Terrace, 2345 E. Prater Way, Suite 111 on the Northern Nevada Medical Center Campus in Sparks. Dr. Teichgraeber accepts new patients, same-day appointments and walk-ins. Northern Nevada Medical Center accepts many of the area’s health plans, including Medicare. For more information or to make an appointment, call 352-5300.