Understanding Asthma and Allergies
Last Edited: October 9th, 2012

Asthma and allergies are two conditions that are often associated with one another. They are both serious conditions that affect millions of people yearly; they are not, however, the same. Asthma is a condition that involves and affects the respiratory system, whereas allergies are a response to an irritant. While allergies can be a contributing factor to asthma, it causes more than respiratory problems, and often causes irritation to the skin or even nausea or vomiting in the case of allergies to food. Both may involve sensitivity to pollutants in the air.

In the United States, approximately 25 million people have asthma. When it comes to allergies, roughly 50 million people are estimated to have some form of them and the rate of allergies and asthma has been rising steadily. Allergies are number five when it comes to the top ten chronic diseases in the country. Asthma is the most chronic condition in children. In terms of gender, adult women are more likely to have asthma than adult males; however, it is more common in young boys than young girls. Yearly, there are over 3,000 deaths that are related to asthma. Many of these deaths are a result of inadequate care and treatment of the condition. The mortality rate for people with allergies is significantly less than with asthma. Roughly 700 people die each year from some kind of allergic reaction, with over half of those deaths related to drug allergies.

Asthma

Asthma is a lung disease that causes a person to have difficulty breathing. The breathing difficulty is the result of inflammation of the tubes that transport air to and from the lungs. These tubes are called airways. When inflammation occurs the muscles around the airways tighten and squeeze them. This leaves little room for air to travel and makes it more difficult to breathe. Excess mucus may also form thickening the airways and further inhibit breathing. When a person has asthma, certain things may trigger this reaction; allergens in the air, smoke, and chemicals are examples of common irritants. Even some medicines, such as aspirin, may cause an asthma attack.

When a person has asthma, they may display a wide range of symptoms, including wheezing, coughing, difficulty breathing, and tightness around the chest, ranging from mild to severe. In cases of severe reactions, they may also prove fatal. For this reason, it is important that people receive the proper treatment. Treatment is for the purpose of controlling the condition, which cannot be cured. Pills or inhalers may be used to control a person's asthma. Medications may be for quick-relief or long-term control. Long-term control medications work over time, but are not as fast acting as quick-relief medications. They are intended for daily use. Quick relief medications are used when a person is having an asthma attack and requires immediate relief. This type of asthma medication is used as needed. Allergy medications may also be used if a person has allergic asthma, which is asthma triggered by allergies.

Before treatment can begin, a person must first be diagnosed as having asthma. This is important as the symptoms alone are not enough to confirm the condition. Diagnosis is made by a doctor or an asthma specialist. As when determining other conditions, the doctor will want a medical history for background on his or her health and to perform a physical examination. These examinations are then followed by a lung function test. This test measures how much air a person is able to breathe both in and out. Other tests may include a chest x-ray, allergy testing, or a bronchoprovocation test to measure airway sensitivity.

Whenever possible, it is important for people to take steps to prevent an asthma attack from occurring. To do this, they should learn what their triggers are and avoid or reduce them. Taking medications as prescribed by the doctor will also help prevent asthma attacks. If a person is unable to avoid triggers, he or she should be able to recognize the signs of an impending episode or attack and know what to do.

Allergies

Allergies are conditions associated with the immune system. These conditions cause extreme responses to substances called allergens. Allergen can be found in both indoors or outdoors environments. Nearly anything that a person encounters may be an allergen. Common allergens include certain types of food, dust, pollen, or pet fur. These substances often do not cause a reaction in a majority of people, but are an irritant to others. A person responds to these allergies in various ways. In some cases, symptoms may include itching of the skin, nose, and/or eyes, and swelling. Other symptoms that frequently come to mind in relation to allergies are coughing, sneezing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. Allergies may also be associated with asthma. Allergic reactions can range from mild to severe. Certain allergic reactions are so severe that it may be fatal. Allergies are often named after the trigger or the area affected. Examples of allergies include seasonal allergies or hay fever, food allergies, skin allergies, and latex allergies.

In order to diagnose allergies, a doctor will take both a complete medical history, and he or she will perform a physical examination. There are several tests that the doctor may perform to help determine the allergen. They include blood tests, patch tests, or skin tests. Skin tests are tests where the potential allergen is put on the surface of the skin, which is then scratched. If the person is allergic, redness, itching or even swelling will occur on the area in approximately 20 to 30 minutes. Another form of skin test involves injecting the allergen into the skin's outer layer. Skin tests are generally the most accurate of the allergy tests. With patch tests, the allergen is placed on the skin and the area is covered for 48 hours. The presence of a rash indicates an allergic response. With a blood test, the blood is drawn and the allergen is introduced to the blood sample. The presence of an allergic response is measured by the amount of antibodies produced.

While allergies cannot be cured, they can be treated. The most effective means of treatment is a preventative one. People who are aware that they have allergies should avoid the responsible allergens whenever it is possible. When indoor allergies are the cause, vacuuming and dusting on a regular basis may reduce the risk of breathing in or contacting them. When affected by outdoor allergens, the best method of prevention is to stay indoors during the time of day when there is the most pollen in the air. This is generally between the hours 10 am and 4 pm. After being outdoors, a person should shower and change clothing whenever possible. If not, he or she should wash their hands and face to remove as much of the pollen from their skin.

If avoidance is not possible, a person may use allergy medications. Most allergy medications are available over-the-counter (OTC). Eye drops can be useful in the treatment of eye allergies, but the results are typically temporary. Nasal sprays and drops, pills, ointments, and creams are also available to treat allergies. Depending on the symptoms, antihistamines may be used to help with sneezing, runny noses, and itching. Rashes may also benefit from the use of antihistamines. Decongestants are used for stuffiness, and non-prescription corticosteroid creams may also be used for itching, swelling and rashes. For some people, OTC medications do not provide the desired relief. Allergy shots may be required or the doctor may write them a prescription for corticosteroid pills and creams, eye drops or nasal sprays.


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