The Difference Between Allergy and Asthma
Spring can be a difficult time of year for people who have allergies or asthma. Flowers and trees are in full bloom, causing pollen to coat sidewalks, cars, and everything in between.
Asthma and allergies are linked in many ways, but what is the difference between the two?
Both asthma and allergies can make you feel miserable. Understanding the similarities and differences between the two can help you learn to manage symptoms or potentially avoid them altogether.
Our immune systems are designed to protect us from potentially harmful threats. Allergies occur when our immune systems react to something which is not a threat, whether it be a food item, pollen, dust, bug bite, medication, or something else.
While the sniffling and sneezing from springtime allergies is most commonly associated with allergies, symptoms of allergies can manifest themselves in the lungs, sinuses, and skin.
Types of allergies:
- Hay fever
- Asthma (allergy-induced asthma)
Allergies cannot be cured, but triggers for allergic reactions can usually be avoided or managed. Determining the cause of your allergic reaction is key. Once you have determined the cause, you can better determine how to avoid symptom-causing allergens.
Asthma is a chronic lung disease which can make breathing uncomfortable and difficult. Asthma can be associated with either an allergic or non-allergic reaction.
Non-allergic asthma can be triggered by stress, medication, air temperature, smoke, and infections of the airway.
After asthma has been triggered, the airways in the lungs react by constricting or narrowing. Asthma may also produce mucus, which further narrows the amount of air which can pass through the airways.
In some cases, symptoms of asthma subside on their own without intervention or medication. For others, symptoms persist or worsen, becoming what is called an asthma attack. Asthma attacks are also known as exacerbations or flare-ups.
Symptoms of asthma include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness
While asthma is not curable, the condition is manageable. Medications are often prescribed to help manage asthma flare-ups. By proactively managing the symptoms of asthma flare-ups, most people can live normal lives without many interruptions from asthma attacks.
Are Allergies and Asthma Linked?
For some people, allergies and asthma can be linked. Both conditions can make breathing difficult. Allergies and asthma can be triggered by some of the same things, including pollen, dust, and mold.
Asthma which is triggered by an allergic reaction is called allergy-induced asthma. You may also hear allergy-induced asthma called ‘allergic asthma’.
Allergic Asthma: Allergy-Induced Asthma
Allergy-induced asthma occurs when symptoms are linked to an allergic reaction. The symptoms of allergic asthma are the same as non-allergic asthma; tightness of the chest, difficulty breathing, coughing, and wheezing are all common.
Allergy-induced asthma can be triggered by:
- Pet dander
- Other allergy triggers
Allergy-induced asthma can be difficult to avoid, especially in the spring. Treatments for allergies and asthma are usually different, but some types of medications can treat both. Identifying and avoiding allergy triggers is a large part of managing allergy-induced asthma.
Is it Allergies, a Cold, or Sinusitis?
There are several conditions which affect the respiratory system in addition to allergies and asthma. The common cold and sinusitis share many symptoms with allergies. Treating the correct condition will help speed along your recovery if you are sick, or help you choose the right treatment plan to ease allergies.
An allergic reaction occurs when you are exposed to an allergen. Allergies can be seasonal, such as with springtime allergies, or perennial (year-round).
- Symptoms begin almost immediately after exposure to the allergen
- Symptoms in the respiratory system include runny nose, sneezing, itchy nose and eyes, and congestion
- Can manifest on the skin as well as in the respiratory system
- Symptoms last for as long as you are exposed to the allergen
- Nasal discharge in allergies is usually thin and clear
A cold is a viral infection which causes the mucous membrane in the nose and throat to become inflamed. Symptoms of a cold are similar to allergies, but go away approximately a week after onset.
- Runny nose
- Weakness and/or fatigue
- Nasal discharge is usually thick and may be yellow
Sinusitis is an inflammation of the nasal passages which can occur either as a bacterial infection, or as a complication of a cold or allergies.
- Pressure in the sinuses
- Symptoms can last for weeks or months
- Nasal discharge is discolored and may be green, grey, yellow, or orange
- If you are unsure whether you have a cold, allergies, or sinusitis, it’s always best to consult your doctor.
Allergy and Asthma Medications
Treatments for allergies and asthma are different, as they treat two different conditions. However, certain treatment types overlap for allergic asthma.
There are two broad categories of asthma medications: long term and quick relief.
Long term relief: Long term relief focuses on controlling chronic asthma and preventing asthma attacks. Medications often have a slower effect but longer duration than quick relief medications.
- Inhaled corticosteroids
- Long-acting beta agonists (LABAs)
- Leukotriene modifiers
- Combination inhalers
Quick relief: Also sometimes called ‘emergency relief’ or ‘rescue’ medications, quick relief options are used to prevent or treat asthma attacks. Medications provide short-term relief of symptoms.
- Short-acting beta agonists
- Oral corticosteroids
- Intravenous corticosteroids
Allergy-induced asthma treatments focus on reducing the immune system’s sensitivity to an allergen. Immunotherapy (also known as allergy shots) and Omalizumab are common types of treatment.
Allergy medications come in a variety of forms: pills, inhalers, nasal sprays, eyedrops, shots, skin creams, and liquids. They can be broken down into four main types.
- Antihistamines: Antihistamines block the production of histamine, which is the chemical produced by your immune system during an allergic reaction. Histamine is what causes symptoms.
- Corticosteroids: Corticosteroids provide relief from allergies by suppressing the inflammation which occurs during an allergic reaction.
- Decongestants: Decongestants provide rapid, short-term relief for sinus and nasal congestion which often occur during an allergic reaction.
- Mast cell stabilizers: Mast cell stabilizers are similar to antihistamines in that they prevent the release of symptom-causing immune system chemicals. Unlike antihistamines, they usually take several days to take effect.