What Is Asthma?
Asthma is a reactive airway disease that causes swelling in the windpipe and branches of the lungs (called bronchioles). When swelling occurs, restricted airways prevent oxygen from moving efficiently throughout the lungs, compromising a person’s ability to breathe. People with asthma experience shortness of breath, tightness in their chest, wheezing, frequent coughing, and are more easily winded during physical activity.
Asthma is quite common, affecting 1 in 13 people in the United States. It’s the most common chronic condition affecting children, although they sometimes outgrow the symptoms. People who live in disadvantaged communities or in urban areas near roadways, industrial plants, and chemicals are at higher risk since air pollution both causes and triggers asthma. Environmental conditions play a role too, such as living in a home with rodents or cockroaches, which produce allergens in their droppings. Other causes include smoking, obesity, family history, previous respiratory infections, and allergies.
While most people are somewhat familiar with asthma, it’s easy to forget that it’s a serious chronic disease with no cure. It can even be life threatening. Thankfully, there are many ways to keep symptoms under control.
What is the relationship between asthma and allergies?
Allergies are the result of your body’s immune system overreacting to an irritant, such as pollen, mold, or ragweed. Unlike asthma which causes the airways in your lungs to constrict, allergies cause head congestion. Your ears swell and itch; your eyes water and become puffy; and your nose stuffs up and runs. Often, people think they’re coming down with a cold, but it’s actually allergies.
For people with asthma, allergies are a more serious concern. Rather than simply causing congestion, allergens are irritants that can trigger some of asthma’s more severe symptoms, ultimately causing people to have difficulty breathing. Around 25 million Americans with asthma also have allergies, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. People who have asthma tend to have more allergies and vice versa.
Here in Mendocino County, where we live amongst the flora and fauna in a relatively temperate climate, there is always something troublesome in the air. In spring and summer, it’s pollen; in fall and winter, it’s mold. Windy days can be especially tough. If you have asthma or are sensitive to allergies, be prepared when you venture outside.
Keeping Asthma and Allergies in Check
Asthma is a long-term condition that requires constant attention. You can optimize your health with the support of a medical provider who can help you develop a plan to manage your symptoms, which may include the use of an inhaler or additional treatments in the form of tablets or steroid injections. Many providers recommend tracking your symptoms so you can measure whether your treatment plan is working. Asthma is considered “controlled” when you only need your emergency inhaler two times per week or less.
Knowing your triggers is vital to keeping asthma in-check. Stay away from cigarette smoke and be wary of indoor as well as outdoor allergens, such as dust mites and pet dander. If your asthma is triggered by exercise, know your limits when you exert yourself.
The same advice applies to allergies: avoid what irritates you when possible. To pinpoint what’s causing your symptoms, take an at-home test or visit your medical provider for an allergy test. Once you know what you’re allergic to, keep an eye on weather forecasts, which usually publish seasonal allergy information. Consider staying indoors on days when allergens are high, especially when it’s windy.
Over-the-counter medications like Allegra, Claritin, Zyrtec, and Xyzal provide daily relief for a wide range of allergies. Sudafed and Benadryl can be helpful, too, but they come with more side effects.
This can be an uncomfortable time of year for people with asthma, allergies, or both—but you don’t have to suffer needlessly. Your medical provider can help you get both conditions under control. Since allergy season is pretty much year-round where we live, the sooner you visit your medical provider, the better you’ll feel going forward.
Pamela Di Franco, FNP-BC, is a Family Nurse Practitioner at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental, and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.