Understanding How Allergies and Asthma Relate to Each Other

Allergy is a descriptive term for a wide variety of hypersensitivity disorders (meaning that you are excessively sensitive to one or more substances to which most people do not normally react), while asthma denotes a specific disease process of the lungs. Although they're two distinct topics with different definitions, allergy and asthma share a strong bond, often coexisting as partners in disease. Fully understanding either topic requires understanding them both.

Think of allergy and asthma as two distinct avenues with major intersections, like Broadway and 42nd Street or Hollywood and Vine. To be an aware and involved patient, you often have to travel down both pathways.

Living a healthy, fulfilling life with allergies and/or asthma involves many general diagnostic, treatment, and preventive measures. In fact, the symptoms of seemingly disparate ailments such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever), most cases of asthma, atopic dermatitis (allergic eczema), and other allergic conditions result from your immune system's similar, hyperreactive response to otherwise harmless substances that doctors refer to as allergens.

The word allergy is the ancient Greek term for an abnormal response or overreaction. Contrary to popular belief, weak or deficient immune systems don't cause asthma or allergy ailments. Rather, your body's defenses work overtime, making your immune system too sensitive to substances that pose no real threat to your well-being. That's why physicians often use the term hypersensitivity to refer to an allergy.

Following are main points to keep in mind when dealing with asthma and allergies:

  • Allergies aren't just hay fever. In addition to affecting your nose, sinuses, eyes, and throat (as in typical cases of allergic rhinitis), exposure to allergy triggers can also cause symptoms that involve other organs of your body, including your lungs, skin, and digestive tract.
  • These ailments are not infectious or contagious. You don't catch an allergy or asthma. However, you may inherit a genetic predisposition to develop hypersensitivities that can eventually appear as allergies and/or asthma.
  • Allergies and asthma aren't like trends or shoe sizes. You don't really outgrow them. Extensive studies over the past 15 years show that although your ailment can certainly vary in character and severity over your lifetime, it's an ongoing physical condition that is most likely always present in some form.
  • Allergy and asthma triggers include allergens such as pollens, animal dander, dust mites, mold spores, various contact allergens, and certain foods, drugs, and venom from stinging insects.
  • Asthmatic reactions can also result from nonallergic triggers that act as irritants, including tobacco smoke, household cleaners, aerosol products, solvents, chemicals, fumes, gases, paints, smoke, and indoor and outdoor air pollution.
  • Other forms of nonallergic triggers that primarily affect people with asthma are known as precipitating factors and include other medical conditions such as rhinitis, sinusitis, gastroesophageal reflux (GER), and viral infections (colds, flu); physical stimuli such as exercise or variations in both air temperature and humidity levels; and sensitivities to food additives such as sulfites, drugs such as beta-blockers (Inderal, Lopressor, Corgard, Timoptic), and aspirin and related over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), ketoprofen (Actron, Orudis), naproxen (Aleve), and newer prescription NSAIDs known as COX-2 inhibitors, including celecoxib (Celebrex) and rofecoxib (Vioxx).
  • Allergies and asthma aren't mutually exclusive conditions. Having one type of hypersensitivity doesn't prevent you from developing others. You can have multiple sensitivities to different types of allergens, irritants, and precipitating factors. Many researchers consider allergic disorders a continuum of disease that can appear in many ways, depending on the nature and degree of your sensitivities, as well as your levels of exposure to triggers.
  • All that sneezes, drips, runs, congests, wheezes, waters, coughs, itches, erupts, or swells is not always due to an allergic reaction. That's why the first step to effectively treating the underlying cause of your symptoms is properly diagnosing your ailment.
  • Although the majority of people with asthma also have allergies (and allergic rhinitis in most cases), some manifestations of asthma seem to develop without an allergic component. In cases of adult-onset asthma, which often develops in people over 40 and is less common than child-onset asthma, atopy (a genetic tendency toward developing allergic hypersensitivity; doesn't appear to play an important role. Instead, precipitating factors such as sinusitis, gastroesophageal reflux (GER), nasal polyps, and sensitivities to aspirin and related NSAIDs are more likely to trigger this condition.
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