Asthma & Allergies: Take control of your symptoms

[4 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • May is National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month, an observance dedicated to educating people about these chronic conditions.

  • More than 24 million Americans have asthma, and more than 100 million have allergies. They’re two of the most common conditions, but they’re often overlooked.

  • People with asthma and allergies can improve their quality of life by managing their conditions with medicines and by avoiding exposures to triggers. 

Reclaim your spring by taking control of asthma and allergies

Spring has officially sprung. The trees are green. The flowers are in bloom. And the sniffles are rampant. Although spring is a time of many beautiful beginnings, it’s also the beginning of allergy season.

That’s why May is National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month. It’s peak season for allergy and asthma flare-ups, so it’s the perfect time of year to educate yourself on the conditions and learn how to control them.

Defining the diseases

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic condition that affects the lungs’ airways, causing inflammation and swelling. Swelling in the airways can lead to several symptoms, such as:

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness or pain in the chest
  • Wheezing

Asthma attacks can range in severity — from mild or moderate to serious or even life-threatening.

Asthma triggers can also vary. Potential triggers can include:

  • Air pollution
  • Airway infections
  • Allergens, including pollen, dust mites and pet dander
  • Exercise
  • Occupational hazards
  • Tobacco or wood smoke

More than 24 million people in the United States have asthma, and more than 40% of adults report having one or more attack each year. In children, asthma is the second leading cause of hospitalizations.

What is an allergy?

An allergy is a reaction your body has to a foreign substance. These foreign substances, called allergens, can be something you eat, something you breathe in, something you inject into the body or something you touch.

Allergens include:

  • Chemical compounds like nickel and cobalt
  • Cockroaches
  • Dust mites
  • Grass pollen
  • Insect stings
  • Latex
  • Mold spores
  • Peanuts
  • Penicillin
  • Pet dander
  • Rodent urine
  • Sesame
  • Shellfish
  • Tree nuts
  • Tree pollen
  • Weed pollen

Many people with allergies have more than one type. For instance, people who are allergic to tree pollen are often also allergic to grass and weed pollen.

Different allergens peak during different seasons. During the spring, trees release pollen into the air, which can cause itchy or watery eyes, as well as nasal congestion. In the winter, though, indoor allergens like mold, dust mites and pet dander are typically more problematic.

Common allergic reactions include:

  • Coughing
  • Hives
  • Itchy eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Scratchy throat
  • Sneezing

In severe cases, allergies can also cause trouble breathing, an asthma attack, a drop in blood pressure and even death. Most often, triggers for severe allergic reactions are from medicine or food allergies, or insect stings.

Seasonal allergies often cause the same symptoms at the same time each year. That’s because the immune system releases chemical mediators, such as histamine, each time it recognizes an allergen as a foreign body. Chemical mediators increase blood flow to the affected areas and trigger inflammation. This can lead to allergic rhinitis (also called hay fever) symptoms, such as:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Itchy eyes, nose, throat
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Swollen and watery eyes

More than 100 million people suffer from allergies each year, making the condition the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the country.

Reducing exposures

Although there isn’t a cure for asthma or allergies, you can control them by avoiding triggers and taking medicine to prevent or manage symptoms.

Asthma triggers

Reduce your exposure to asthma triggers:

  • Avoid smoke by not smoking and staying away from secondhand smoke.
  • Eliminate mold by using an exhaust fan or opening a window in the bathroom or kitchen and fixing water leaks as soon as possible.
  • Kill dust mites by washing all bedding in hot water and vacuuming carpets and furniture once a week.
  • Plan around outdoor air pollution by scheduling outdoor activities when the air quality is good.
  • Prevent pollen and dust from entering your house or car by checking air purifiers, air filters, air conditioners and vacuum cleaners and replacing them if they’re dirty and clogged.

Allergens

Take antihistamines like Claritin® and Zyrtec® to preventively reduce allergy symptoms before you’re exposed to certain allergens. You can also try over-the-counter steroid-containing nasal sprays like Flonase® and Nasacort®, which work by reducing inflammation and hay fever symptoms.

Allergy shots may also be an option. They decrease the body’s sensitivity to certain allergens over time to reduce the severity of symptoms.

If medicines don’t help, you may qualify for certain surgical procedures that can help remove obstructions and enlarge nasal and sinus openings, helping with the future delivery of medicines so they can work as they should.

Taking back your life

Asthma and allergies are two of the most common but overlooked conditions affecting people in the United States. Even though they can’t be cured, both can be controlled. Taking steps to reduce your exposures and manage your symptoms can help you prevent asthma and allergy attacks and improve your quality of life.

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Related resources 

Ask an expert: My allergy meds aren’t working

Under the weather? Know how to care for a cold or flu and when to see a provider

How better indoor air quality leads to a better quality of life

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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