With the change in the seasons upon us and so many pollen, leaf mold, and other allergens floating around, millions of Americans are experiencing allergy symptoms. While itching, sniffling, and sneezing are bad enough, many allergy patients also have asthma, an inflammatory reaction that occurs in the airways. What's the link between allergies and asthma?

Allergies and Allergic Asthma

About 50 million Americans are thought to have allergies. Asthma affects an estimated 20 million, about half of whom have allergic asthma, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. During an allergy attack, a foreign substance (an allergen) like dust mites or pollen triggers a release of chemicals that's intended to prevent the allergen from harming the body. It's an immune system response that can cause common allergy symptoms, which include:

  • Itching

  • Swelling

  • Mucus production

  • Hives

  • Rashes

In some patients, that swelling and mucus production occurs in the bronchi, the airways that lead to the lungs. This is asthma. Many of the symptoms of allergic and non-allergic asthma are the same: coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, rapid breathing, chest tightness, and

sometimes anxiety associated with feeling like you're not getting enough air. With
allergic asthma the reaction is usually triggered by an inhaled allergen like mold,
dust, fur, or pollen.

Treating Allergies and Asthma

There are many treatments that successfully reduce allergy and asthma attacks and symptoms. Karen Calhoun, MD, Professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at The Ohio State University in Columbus says, "Immunotherapy (allergy shots or allergy drops) can indeed change the natural history of allergic disease, not only changing blood and skin testing results from positive to negative, but also reducing the development of future allergies and, in children, reducing their risk of going on to develop allergic asthma. This treatment is focused, specific, and highly successful." Most treatments target either allergies or asthma, though some medications do double duty to help prevent or reduce symptoms for both.

Causes of the Increase in Allergies and Asthma

Both allergies and asthma can be inherited, meaning these are conditions that can run in the family. But as incidences of children and adults with allergy and asthma symptoms increases, there's speculation that ever-greater numbers of allergens and toxins in the environment are a cause. Some research suggests that symptoms may be triggered by the overuse of antibacterial products, which may be making our immune systems too sensitive. Other studies note that  children born by cesarean section (C-section) might not receive certain immune
system-boosting bacteria from their mothers during the birth process. Whatever the reason for increased number of cases, the key to managing allergy and asthma symptoms is to avoid known allergens and to seek appropriate medical treatment. 


Karen H. Calhoun MD, FACS, FAAOA, reviewed this article.



Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America