May is National Allergy and Asthma Awareness Month. Of course, if you live in North Texas and have allergies, you probably don’t have to wait until May to become aware of them! Our beautiful spring and summer weather brings with it plenty of pollen-induced allergy symptoms for many of us: sneezing, itchy eyes, congestion and more.
And while asthma is a condition that can flare up at any time of year, allergies can exacerbate the condition. With springtime in full gear and summer fast approaching, let’s take a look at allergies and asthma and how they can affect you and your family.
What is Asthma?
Asthma is a serious condition, but one that can be effectively managed through medication and precautions. The causes of asthma are unknown, though heredity is known to be a contributing factor. Asthma causes the airways, the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs, to become inflamed. When this happens, the muscles around the airways tighten, causing the passages to narrow. This process can also cause an increased production of mucus, making it even more difficult to move air. This series of events leads to wheezing, coughing and difficulty breathing, the chief symptoms of asthma. Sometimes episodes are mild and pass quickly; at other times, the symptoms persist and get worse – this is known as an asthma attack.
Asthma is very common in the United States: 25 million people have been diagnosed with asthma and of those, 7 million are children. In fact, nearly one out of five kids in North Texas has asthma. Most people who have asthma developed it as a child, although it can present in adulthood, as well.
“An asthma attack is frightening, particularly for someone who doesn’t know they have asthma and they suddenly experience difficulty breathing for the first time,” says Dr. Oyeyemi Fabuyi, a pulmonologist. “It’s especially scary for children and their parents. If parents ever notice their child wheezing, they should make an appointment with the doctor right away.”
Asthma is diagnosed with a simple, painless test: the patient blows into a device called a spirometer, which measures lung function. While asthma cannot be cured, it can be treated and managed effectively to the point where flare-ups are minimal, and an asthma patient can live a normal life.
Know Your Asthma Triggers
Asthma is irritated by “triggers,” which cause the asthma to flare and make it difficult to breathe. Some of the most common asthma triggers include:
Common cold & flu: Any type of upper-respiratory illness can cause asthma to flare up.
Allergies: Allergies can cause an asthma attack.
Cold air: Breathing in cold air is a trigger for some.
Tobacco smoke: This is one of the worst offenders for patients with asthma. Anyone with asthma should avoid exposure to second-hand smoke and should certainly avoid smoking themselves. Tobacco smoke can worsen asthma symptoms, not to mention cause a host of other respiratory and cardiovascular problems.
Dust mites: These are tiny bugs that live in mattresses, sheets, pillows and other bedding. Utilizing mattress and pillow covers can reduce exposure to dust mites, as does washing sheets with hot water. Many pillows are also washable.
Cockroaches: These insects aren’t only gross; they can also cause asthma attacks. Keeping your home clean is an important way to eliminate these pests and reduce likelihood of an asthma attack.
Mold: Mold triggers asthma attacks in many people. Keeping bathrooms clean and clear of mold and mildew is important.
Pets: Unfortunately, the dander from our furry companions can cause asthma attacks in some people.
Outdoor air pollution: Air pollutants can trigger asthma symptoms. In North Texas, where ozone levels routinely reach unhealthy levels in the summertime, patients with asthma should limit outdoor activity.
Fumes: Any type of strong fume, such as paint or perfume, can exacerbate asthma.
“Recognizing the triggers that cause your asthma to flare up is the first step in managing the condition,” explains Dr. James Harvey, a primary care physician. “Once you know what your triggers are, you can develop strategies to avoid or reduce exposure to them. Recognizing and avoiding triggers is the foundation of an asthma action plan, a plan you and your provider will develop together. “
“An asthma action plan is essential for any asthma patient to have and know well,” says Dr. Errol Bryce, an internal medicine physician. “In addition to understanding triggers, an action plan will focus on how to manage the asthma, so it does not flare up as often, and how to treat it if it does. Taking medications as prescribed by your physician is an important part of following the plan. For people with allergies, allergy treatment can also be an effective part of asthma management.”
Sometimes asthma patients are prescribed a “maintenance” inhaler – used on a daily basis – to keep airways open. This is different from a “rescue” inhaler, which anyone with asthma must carry at all times. Used in the event of an asthma attack, the rescue inhaler helps to immediately open the constricted airways.
“Asthma must be taken seriously, but as long as you follow your asthma action plan by avoiding and minimizing exposure to triggers and taking prescribed medications, there is no reason it needs to interfere with your life in any significant way,” says Dr. John Briscoe, an internal medicine physician.
An allergic reaction occurs when a foreign substance enters our body and our immune system, mistaking it for danger, attacks it. This process creates a reaction in the body that people commonly refer to as “allergies.”
Allergies & Anaphylaxis
Some food, drug and insect sting allergies may cause a severe, life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis. Symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction include weak pulse, a tightening of the throat, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, drop in blood pressure and loss of consciousness. Anaphylaxis causes the immune system to go into shock.
“People who have this type of allergy must take it very seriously,” says Dr. John Fewins, an ear, nose and throat specialist. “If a person is known to have an allergy that could causes anaphylaxis, he or she will need to keep an epinephrine auto-injector with them at all times. In the event of an anaphylactic reaction, the patient injects himself to provide immediate, but temporary, relief. He must then call 911 for emergency medical attention.”
Some people are allergic to certain medications, insects or foods but do not experience anaphylaxis when exposed. Possible additional symptoms include:
Drugs: Hives, itchy skin and rashes are possible symptoms of an allergic reaction to a drug, such as penicillin.
Insect stings and bites: Wasps, bees and fire ants produce allergic reactions in some of their victims, leading to swelling, shortness of breath, hives and itching all over the body.
Food: Peanuts and shellfish are two common offenders, but a variety of foods can cause allergic reactions. These allergies can cause hives and swelling of the lips, tongue or throat.
The most common type of allergy is allergic rhinitis, sometimes called Hay Fever. This is the type of allergy that affects many people in North Texas, especially in the spring and summer months when trees, plants and grasses are in their peak seasons and producing lots of pollen. Mold, dust and animal dander can also cause allergic rhinitis. Common reactions to allergic rhinitis include sneezing; itchy, watery or red eyes; runny nose; nasal congestion; post-nasal drip and feeling tired. For people with asthma, these types of allergies can trigger an attack.
“For some people, allergies are a nuisance that affect them only occasionally. For others, they can be a major problem, producing frequent symptoms and interfering with daily activities,” says Dr. J. Bradley McIntyre, an ear, nose and throat specialist (otolaryngology). “If someone has only occasional allergic symptoms, these can often be treated with over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines, decongestants and nasal sprays. But if someone’s allergies produce frequent symptoms, it is best to be tested for allergies and develop an immunotherapy treatment plan.”
Allergy testing is usually done through a series of skin prick tests to determine which allergens the patient reacts to (these tests are not painful). After determining which pollens, molds and other airborne substances the patient is allergic to, the lab prepares an immunotherapy treatment in which the patient is exposed to the allergens at gradually-increasing levels. Over time, this process builds immunity to the allergen.
Traditionally, immunotherapy has been administered via an injection that the patient does him or herself at home on a regular basis. Some Privia North Texas Medical Group providers also offer immunotherapy via a sublingual medication (a drop under the tongue), which is effective for some types of allergens.
“If you are experiencing frequent allergic symptoms, you should visit with your health care provider about being tested,” suggests ear, nose and throat specialist, Dr. Jeremy Watkins. “Many of my patients are surprised at how much their lives change after undergoing immunotherapy for a year or more.”
“For children with allergies, an immunotherapy treatment program can make a world of difference for them, making it easier to play outside and participate in school and extracurricular activities,” says Dr. Tahir Ali, who is also an ear, nose and throat specialist.
Don’t Let Allergies or Asthma Slow You Down
Asthma is a serious health condition that must be managed through medical treatment. For many people, allergies can also have a significant impact on their health and well-bring. However, both conditions can be treated and managed effectively.
If you or your child experiences symptoms associated with allergies or asthma, you should make an appointment with your health care provider to discuss it. With proper diagnosis and treatment, neither condition need interfere with your or your child’s daily routine.
This article contains information sourced from:
The Mayo Clinic (asthma)
The Mayo Clinic (anaphylaxis)
The Mayo Clinic (allergies)