If you suffer from allergies, you may have also been diagnosed with asthma. Similarly, if you have asthma, your doctor might have talked to you about determining whether you have allergies. Perhaps you’re wondering: are allergies and asthma the same thing? They’re not; although asthma and allergies often coexist—and interact—they are very different conditions.
What is Asthma?
Let’s start with asthma. Asthma is a chronic disease that affects the lungs and airways, the tubes that carry air to the lungs. In patients with asthma, inflammation causes the airways to swell and become hyper-sensitive to certain substances or conditions, called triggers. When the airways are exposed to a trigger through inhalation, the muscles around them contract, restricting the movement of air and making breathing difficult. In some cases, an excess production of mucus further obstructs the airways.
This narrowing of the airways creates such symptoms as coughing, wheezing, difficulty talking, shortness of breath and a tight feeling in the chest. In well-managed asthma, these symptoms may be mild and subside rather quickly. Worsening symptoms, though, can lead to an asthma attack. The goal of asthma treatment, which may involve trigger avoidance plans and oral, injected or inhaled medications, is to control airway inflammation and prevent symptoms from occurring. Certain other medications treat symptoms during an asthma attack.
How are allergies different from asthma?
While allergy symptoms often involve the respiratory system, unlike asthma, allergies are not a disease of the lungs or airways. Instead, an allergy occurs when the immune system mistakenly recognizes an otherwise innocuous substance, the allergen, as an invader. The body produces antibodies that identify that specific allergen during each exposure and trigger the activation of mast cells, which release histamine and other chemicals in the body.
These chemicals are what actually cause allergy symptoms. Symptoms of an allergic reaction range from the intermittent sneeze or skin rash, to the significant impairment of persistent congestion and malaise, to life-threatening anaphylaxis. Allergy treatment plans may include antihistamines, steroids, eye drops, nasal sprays, skin creams or other medications as well as environmental control plans to reduce exposure to allergens. Allergen immunotherapy, which desensitizes the immune system to a particular allergen, is another common treatment.
Similarities between Allergies and Asthma
Although allergies and asthma are distinct conditions, they have several similar characteristics. Your risk for developing either allergies or asthma is increased, for example, if any of your family members have been diagnosed with them. Both allergy and asthma patients often experience symptoms caused by multiple triggers, and either disease can develop at any age. Most importantly, though, allergies and asthma frequently go hand in hand. Approximately half of asthma patients have allergic asthma, in which asthma symptoms are triggered by an allergen. In these patients, uncontrolled allergies may worsen asthma symptoms.
Allergies and Asthma Diagnosis
Whether you suffer from allergies, asthma or both, an allergist can provide an accurate diagnosis and help you manage symptoms. Your allergist will measure lung function with such tests as spirometry and chest x-rays to determine whether you have asthma and to monitor your response to treatment once a diagnosis is made. In order to uncover the allergens responsible for your allergy symptoms or asthma flare-ups, your allergist may also conduct allergy tests. In addition, your allergist will likely help you develop an asthma action plan to deal with symptoms and an environmental control plan to avoid allergen exposure.
While neither asthma nor allergies is curable, your allergist will work with you to create an effective treatment plan to manage your symptoms. Keeping your allergy and asthma symptoms under control is the best way to avoid complications and improve your quality of life.