Is your nose running? Your eyes watering? Your throat scratchy? If you’re experiencing these ailments and it’s springtime in North Texas, there’s a good chance your allergies are bothering you. As the weather warms and the landscape greens up, pollen counts shoot through the roof. Grass, trees, fungus – any of these can make you miserable if you are sensitive to these allergens. For folks who suffer from asthma, allergies can exacerbate this underlying condition. May is National Allergy and Asthma Awareness Month, a good time to take a look at what causes these conditions and how to best manage them.
What Are Allergies, Anyway?
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.”
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 producing lots of pollen. Plant pollens such as cedar, mulberry, maple, elm and oak are some of the more notorious offenders in North Texas. 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 fatigued. For people with asthma, these types of allergies can trigger an attack.
“For some, allergies are a nuisance that affect them only occasionally or on a seasonal basis. For others, they can be a frequent, recurring problem that interferes with daily activities,” says Dr. Tahir Ali, an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist. “For those who have only occasional allergic symptoms, these can often be treated with over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines, decongestants and nasal sprays. But if allergies produce frequent symptoms, it is best to be tested 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 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 experience frequent allergic symptoms, you should visit with your health care provider about being tested,” says Dr. Sean Callahan, an ENT. “We often see a positive change in patients who undergo immunotherapy for a year or longer.”
“For children with allergies, an immunotherapy treatment program may be especially valuable, making it easier to play outside and participate in school and extracurricular activities without suffering allergic reactions,” adds Dr. Callahan.
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 are prone to anaphylaxis need to take this condition seriously,” says Dr. Marc Dean, an ENT. “When someone has an allergy that could cause anaphylaxis, it is important 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 giving them the time to call 911 for emergency medical attention.”
Some people are allergic to certain medications, insects or foods but do not experience anaphylaxis. Possible additional symptoms of exposure 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.
What is Asthma?
The most important thing to know if you have asthma is that you can control it. Asthma is a serious condition, but one that can be effectively managed through medication and precautions. The causes of asthma are unknown, though heredity and environment are known to be contributing factors.
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. These cascading events lead to wheezing, coughing and difficulty breathing, the main symptoms of asthma. Sometimes episodes are mild and pass quickly; at other times, the symptoms persist and worsen – 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,” explains Dr. John Fewins, an ENT. “It’s especially scary for children and their parents. If parents ever notice their child wheezing, they should make an appointment with their pediatrician 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.
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.
Know Your Triggers & Have a Plan
Asthma is irritated by “triggers,” which cause the asthma to flare and make it difficult to breathe. Different people will have different asthma triggers. Some of the most common 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 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 disgusting; 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 sometimes 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 asthma to flare up is the first step in managing the condition,” says Dr. John McIntyre, an ENT. “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,” Dr. Jeremy Watkins, an ENT. “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.”
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 quality of life. However, both conditions can be diagnosed, treated and managed effectively.
If you or your child experience 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 drastically interfere with your family’s activities.
This article contains information sourced from:
The Mayo Clinic (asthma)
The Mayo Clinic (anaphylaxis)
The Mayo Clinic (allergies)