More than 25 million people in the U.S. have asthma, and the most common type is allergic asthma, affecting around 60% of asthma sufferers.
In this article, I’ll explain what allergic asthma is and what differentiates it from other types of asthma, what causes and triggers allergic asthma, how it’s diagnosed and treated, how you can best manage your symptoms, and when to see a doctor.
While no form of asthma is curable, they are all highly treatable—and, right now, by reading this article, you’re on the right track towards living a healthier life with fewer symptoms.
What is Allergic Asthma?
If you have allergic asthma, you will suffer from asthma symptoms—like wheezing, coughing, and difficulty breathing—when your body reacts to allergens, because your immune system thinks they are harmful to you (even though they’re not).
When allergic asthma sufferers encounter one of their triggering allergens, their immune system responds by releasing immunoglobulin E (IgE).
Too much of this substance can lead to swelling and inflammation of the airways in the lungs, making it hard to breathe, and could lead to an asthma attack.
What is an allergen?
Allergens are substances that can trigger an allergic reaction.
Common allergens include dust, pollen, animal dander, mold, and more.
These substances can enter the body and cause a reaction by being inhaled, touched, swallowed, or injected.
Though they’re not inherently harmful, the body mistakes allergens as substances that may harm you, and the immune system reacts to protect you from them.
For people with allergic asthma, this immune response is what leads to asthma symptoms.
Allergic asthma vs. traditional asthma
Allergic asthma is the most common type of asthma.
Other types of asthma include:
- Exercise-induced asthma, which is often triggered during exercise
- Nighttime, or nocturnal, asthma, which is more frequent at night
- Occupational asthma, which occurs in the workplace
- Cough-variant asthma, where severe coughing is the main symptom.
These different forms can overlap. And the symptoms of these different types of asthma are almost entirely the same—the difference between them is what causes them.
For allergic asthma (versus non-allergic asthma), this cause is allergens.
People who suffer from allergic asthma are more likely to experience other types of allergic disorders, like food allergies, eczema, or hay fever.
Symptoms of Allergic Asthma
Someone experiencing an allergic asthma attack may experience any or all of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness
These symptoms vary between asthma sufferers.
They can even vary between episodes for the same person, meaning you may experience a symptom during one attack that you don’t experience in another.
Symptoms may also vary in severity between attacks.
Triggers and Causes of Allergic Asthma
For people with allergic asthma, allergens trigger asthma symptoms.
When this happens, the immune system can cause the airways to become inflamed and swell due to bronchoconstriction, which can trigger an asthma attack.
Typically, this happens in the case of inhaled allergens.
Common inhaled allergens include:
- Pet dander
- Smoke from tobacco, wood, or grass
- Dust mites
- Pollen (from trees, grasses, weeds)
- Chemical fumes and air pollution
- Strong smells (such as perfumes or other scented products)
Though less common, there are also non-inhaled allergens that can cause allergic asthma:
People with allergic asthma may also be more likely to respond to irritants that are not allergens, because a hallmark of all types of asthma is “bronchial hyperresponsiveness,” meaning the airways are especially sensitive and respond excessively.
These irritants can include physical activity, exposure to the cold, and respiratory infections like the flu.
Asthma triggers vary, and it’s important to know what your triggers are so you can avoid them when possible, or prepare for them when you can’t.
Treatment for Allergic Asthma
Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for allergic asthma.
But there are effective treatments available to help quell symptoms and improve quality of life.
There are two main methods of treating allergic asthma, medication and exposure therapy.
If you are diagnosed with allergic asthma, it’s likely that your doctor will prescribe you either an inhaled or oral medication.
The type and dosage of the medication will depend on factors like your age, symptoms and symptom severity, weighed against the medication’s side effects.
When it comes to the type of medication, doctors will prescribe either a long-term asthma medication (taken regularly to treat and prevent asthma symptoms, often called a “controller”) or a short-term asthma medication (often called a “rescue medication,” taken as needed to prevent or treat attacks).
Both are typically taken as inhalers, which are commonly referred to as “puffers,” though asthma medication can come in other forms, such as pills or shots.
People suffering from allergic asthma may also be prescribed an allergy medication to be taken regularly to help desensitize the body to the allergen that causes the asthma symptoms.
In addition to prescription drugs, there are also a variety of antihistamines (a type of allergy medication) that can be purchased over the counter to help reduce the body’s response to allergens.
These include Zyrtec, Claritin, and Allegra.
If you do not respond well to any of the medication types above, your doctor may also prescribe you a biologic medication, like mepolizumab, omalizumab, or benralizumab.
These medications target certain cells and antibodies in the immune system.
When taken alongside other asthma medications, biologics can help people suffering from severe asthma better control their symptoms.
Exposure therapy, also called allergy immunotherapy or allergy shots, may also be a beneficial treatment for those suffering from allergic asthma.
Your doctor may recommend it alongside medication.
This therapy involves getting a series of shots over a long period of time, in an effort to reduce the body’s immune response to certain allergy triggers.
Increasing amounts of an allergen are injected over a series of treatments so the body becomes immune, or desensitized, to the allergen.
Once the treatment is complete, asthma symptoms can be greatly reduced or even go away entirely.
This reduction in symptoms lasts even after the treatment ends, making this form of therapy efficient, cost effective, and attractive to those who don’t want to take long-term medication.
While exposure therapy can be done on both kids and adults, the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology doesn’t typically recommend it for children younger than five.
Diagnosing Allergic Asthma
A doctor will typically diagnose allergic asthma in two ways: By examining your lung function, and with an allergy test.
During a diagnosis, your doctor will typically start by asking questions, including whether you cough frequently, when your breathing problems are at their worst, what your symptoms are like, what typically helps your breathing problems, and whether you have a family history of asthma.
These questions can help determine the type of asthma you may have, and how it can best be treated.
After they gain information about your condition, a doctor may perform one or more tests to get a better idea of whether you have asthma or a different condition.
These tests are often called lung function tests or pulmonary function tests, and may include:
- Peak flow meter test: This test measures the strength and speed of your exhalation, a marker of lung function.
- Spirometry test: This test determines how well your lungs are working by measuring how much and how quickly you inhale and exhale.
- Bronchodilator test: This test determines whether a bronchodilator (which opens and dilates the airways in your lungs) aids your breathing. If so, you likely have asthma.
In addition to these tests, which can help determine whether you have asthma, a doctor may also conduct an allergy test to determine whether you have allergic asthma, as opposed to a different type of asthma.
The most common of these is known as a skin-prick test, also calleda puncture or scratch test.
In this test, the doctor will prick drops of different allergen extracts (as much as 50 at once) into your skin.
After just 15 minutes, the doctor will be able to determine what you are allergic to based on how your skin reacted to the drops.
Risk Factors for Allergic Asthma
While researchers are unsure why exactly someone may develop allergic asthma, certain genetic and environmental factors may put someone more at risk for this condition.
When it comes to genetics, doctors believe that there are more than 100 genes that may be associated with allergic asthma.
Many of these genes play a role in immune function or lung and airway function.
These genes can be passed down through generations, meaning people who have a family history of either allergic asthma or another allergic disorder are more likely to develop allergic asthma themselves.
Other risk factors for allergic asthma (and other forms of asthma) include:
- Being exposed to secondhand smoke
- Being overweight
- Being exposed to fumes, chemicals, or other irritants and types of pollution
Prevention and Management of Allergic Asthma
Follow your doctor’s recommendations and treatment plan when it comes to managing your allergic asthma.
Being diligent in taking your medication and avoiding your triggers can change your quality of life—and even save your life, if your symptoms are severe enough.
After your diagnosis, your doctor may also continue to monitor your lung function using a peak flow test to ensure that your treatment plan is working properly, and adjust your medication if not.
They may also give you a device of your own to test yourself.
When to See a Doctor
If your allergic asthma is interfering with your everyday life and activities, you should see a doctor.
Allergic asthma is easily treatable, and treatment can greatly improve your quality of life.
You and your doctor can find a plan that works best for you and your needs, and have you breathing easy again—literally.
If you have seen a doctor and have been prescribed long-term medication that is no longer working, go back to a doctor to reevaluate your condition.
If you are having a severe asthma attack and your rescue inhaler does not help, go to an emergency room.
Emergency medical attention should be sought if you are experiencing symptoms like straining chest muscles, rapid breathing or wheezing, bluish skin, gasping, exhaustion, or confusion.
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