How to identify and manage your symptoms.
Story: Dr. Purvi Parikh
Watery eyes, a runny nose, tightening chest, and a cough that lasts for more than two weeks—all of these are too familiar, and certainly unwelcome, signs of oncoming allergies and asthma. In recent years, they have become increasingly common, with approximately 50 million people with allergies and 25 million with asthma in the United States alone.
Historically, these conditions have held sufferers’ hostage; the difficulties of engaging in and enjoying daily life making them feel trapped. Fortunately, this is changing. Innovative treatments and management solutions are completely reshaping the experience of living with these dangers and discomforts. For the individual with acute allergies, there are various pills and sprays that are both prescription and over the counter. For the asthma sufferer historically reliant on a nebulizer or inhaler, there are now portable solutions such as Flyp nebulizer, depending on which medications you use, that have all of the parts contained within the unit; making it pocket-sized and easy to use.
To ensure the best possible quality of life for asthma and allergy sufferers, it is equally important to understand and prepare for the many outside factors that can trigger or exacerbate these conditions. In some cases, these causes are purely environmental: excessive pollen during the spring months, humidity or urban air pollution. In others, the trigger can even be the absence of infectious agents, which can increase susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of the immune system. Called hygiene hypothesis, this process stems from a theory that a young child’s environment can be “too clean” to effectively stimulate or challenge his or her immune system. But whatever the reason, any one or combination of these factors also can mean an exponential increase in an individual’s susceptibility to acute allergies or asthma.
The two conditions themselves are also closely intertwined, with a person’s allergies often being the primary reason for their asthma, and typically the most common cause of an asthma attack. Triggers vary from person to person, and there is generally a long list of potential ones to avoid.
Common signs and symptoms
How can you tell if you have a bad case of allergies or the onset of an asthma attack? There are many signs and symptoms a person may exhibit depending on the type of allergy they have. Common allergic triggers are food, environment, insect venom, and medications. All of these can cause a combination of skin, respiratory, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal problems.
Most allergies exhibit some sort of respiratory symptoms, and so there is a strong correlation between the allergic reaction and asthma. These can include:
- Stuffy nose
- Itchy or watery eyes
- Tightening of one’s chest
- Hives or rash
Respiratory symptoms are typically triggered by seasonal factors like pollen or hay fever during the spring, summer, and fall months, but also may include reactions to mold, dust mites, or pet dander. Symptoms specific to mold or dust mites can be exacerbated by heat and humidity.
Asthma is characterized by swelling or inflammation of the airways in the lungs. Sufferers generally will experience symptoms when the airways constrict or inflame, including:
- Coughing, especially at night
- Chest tightness, pain, or pressure
- Shortness of breath
Diagnosing allergies and asthma
For allergies, skin testing is widely used and most helpful in finding the trigger. In most cases, the patient will have his or her skin exposed to small amounts of various substances with doctors observing the reaction over time. Immunoglobulin E (IgE) tests, which identify IgE antibodies to specific antigens, are typically used to identify both food and environmental allergies.
For asthma, doctors will perform a pulmonary function test, which determines how well the lungs are working. The test measures lung volume, capacity, rates of flow, and gas exchange. Additionally, chest X-rays can identify potential outside factors like infections that could be causing or exacerbating symptoms.
Minimizing allergy and asthma discomfort
To get a handle on allergy and asthma, the first step is to see a board-certified allergist or immunologist to confirm the diagnosis. Treatment may be anything from steroids or antihistamine nasal sprays to antihistamine pills or eye drops. In the case of asthma treatment, inhalers, injections, or pills may be used depending on how severe the problem is. It pays to learn proper use of an inhaler, or a doctor may prescribe a home nebulizer to ensure the medicine is fully reaching your lungs. Nebulizers tend to have better lung deposition—which is to say, they get deeper into your lungs—than inhalers.
When necessary, immunotherapy (commonly known as “allergy shots”) can lower severity and in some cases cure allergies and asthma fully.
Non-medical intervention can make life far more pleasant as well. Helpful solutions can include keeping bedrooms allergen-free by removing covers or carpets with dust mites, closing windows during peak pollen times, and keeping pets out of the bedroom. Air purifiers can also help minimize allergens.
A well-rounded approach to tackling allergies and asthma is the best way to ensure some measure of comfort. Consult a trusted physician, tweak the physical environment as much as possible, and remain aware of any changes in how you feel. Breathing is far too important to ever take lightly.
About the writer →
Dr. Purvi Parikh is an allergist and immunologist at New York University Langone Health.