Allergic Asthma

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is allergic asthma?

Allergic asthma is the most common form of asthma in the United States. Overall, asthma affects about 25 million Americans. Allergic asthma accounts for about 60% of the disease. Allergic asthma has the same symptoms and the same cause as the non-allergic form. However, the triggers are different.

Asthma is a chronic lung disease characterized by acute flare-ups, or asthma attacks. The cause is airway hyper-responsiveness. This means the airways of the lungs are very sensitive and overreact to irritants. The result is airway inflammation and narrowing, which causes breathing problems. In allergic asthma, the irritants are allergens. Allergens are normally harmless substances, such as pollen. However, some people’s immune systems react to allergens as if they were foreign invaders that need to be removed from the body. This causes an allergic reaction and can trigger asthmatic attacks. People with allergic asthma often have other allergies and allergic disease as well.

Allergic asthma treatment is similar in many ways to other forms of asthma. With allergic asthma, it’s also important to eliminate or reduce exposure to triggering allergens. You should seek prompt medical care if your asthma medicines aren’t controlling your symptoms. If you’re having an asthma attack, use your rescue medicines. If your symptoms do not improve within 15 minutes, seek immediate medical care (call 911). An asthma attack can progress quickly to a life-threatening emergency.

What are the symptoms of allergic asthma?

Allergic asthma symptoms are similar to other forms of asthma. In allergic asthma, symptoms occur after exposure to an allergen trigger.

Common symptoms of allergic asthma

The most common symptoms of allergic asthma include:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

Sometimes, allergic asthma attacks can progress very rapidly and lead to a life-threatening situation. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Blue or pale lips or fingernails

  • Chest pressure

  • Excessive anxiety

  • Fast heart rate

  • Inability to walk, talk, or perform other normal activities

  • Severe breathing problems

  • Failure of rescue medicines to improve any of these symptoms within 15 minutes

Allergic asthma attacks can also be milder, but last for a long time. If your symptoms are bothersome but not severe, call your doctor if they do not improve within an hour of using rescue medicines.

What causes allergic asthma?

Like all forms of asthma, allergic asthma starts with overreactive airways in the lungs. This is airway hyper-responsiveness. It means the airways are overly sensitive to irritants. With exposure to an irritant, the airways become inflamed and constrict. This narrows the space for air to flow and results in the symptoms of asthma.

In allergic asthma, the irritant that triggers symptoms is an allergen. Allergens are substances that normally don’t cause any problems. However, in people who are sensitive to them, allergens cause an allergic reaction. This starts with the immune system mistakenly seeing the allergen as a foreign invader. In response, it mounts an attack to try to rid the body of the invader. Part of the attack involves the release of immune substances, including histamine and leukotrienes. These substances cause symptoms of an allergic reaction in the eyes, nose, throat, skin and lungs.

Common allergen triggers in allergic asthma include:

  • Animal dander

  • Dust mites

  • Household pests such as cockroaches

  • Mold spores

  • Pollen

These allergens can set off an asthma attack when people with allergic asthma inhale them.

What are the risk factors for allergic asthma?

Doctors and researchers do not fully understand exactly how and why some people get asthma. They think it is likely a combination of genetics and environmental factors. Having a parent or sibling with allergies or allergic asthma increases your risk of developing allergic asthma. It’s also common for people with allergies or other allergic diseases to develop allergic asthma. This includes people with atopic dermatitis (eczema), food allergies, and hay fever.

Reducing your risk of allergic asthma

It’s not always possible to prevent allergic asthma from developing. But you can help keep allergic asthma symptoms under control by limiting exposure to allergens. The first step in this process is to identify the allergens that trigger your symptoms. Your doctor will do this during diagnosis. Once you know your allergen triggers, you can take the appropriate steps including:

  • Buy a vacuum with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter and use it weekly on carpets and upholstered furniture.

  • Close windows during allergy season and run the furnace fan to filter the air.

  • Fix water leaks immediately, run a dehumidifier, and use bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans.

  • Keep furred and feathered pets out of your home.

  • Remove carpeting and rugs from your house.

  • Take steps to control pests.

  • Use dust-proof covers on your mattress and pillows.

  • Wash bedding at least once a week in hot water and dry on the hottest setting.

How is allergic asthma treated?

Treating allergic asthma is similar to treating other forms of the disease. While it is not possible to cure asthma, medicines can control the disease. Doctors use two types of drugs to do this. The first is long-term control, or maintenance medicines. The goal is to control asthma and prevent attacks by using these medicines on a regular basis. The other class is quick-relief, or rescue medicines. You use these medicines to relieve symptoms when an attack occurs.

Classes of asthma medicines include:

  • Immunomodulators are long-term control medicines that regulate the immune system’s response to triggering allergens.

  • Inhaled corticosteroids are long-term control medicines with powerful anti-inflammatory actions.

  • Leukotriene modifiers are long-term control medicines that reduce the effects of immune substances.

  • Long-acting beta agonists (LABAs) are long-term control medicines that relax the airways.

  • Short-acting beta agonists (SABAs) are quick-acting medicines to open the airways during an attack.

Medicines are part of an overall asthma action plan. Your plan will also include strategies to reduce allergens and ways to track your asthma control. Instructions for responding to a flare and for when to seek emergency care will be in your plan as well. If you are ever in doubt about whether to seek care, err on the side of caution and find help.

What are the potential complications of allergic asthma?

The main complication of allergic asthma is uncontrolled symptoms. This can affect your quality of life and potentially cause medical emergencies. Once you start treatment, your doctor will monitor your asthma control. Signs your asthma is not under control and could lead to complications including:

The main complication of allergic asthma is uncontrolled symptoms. This can affect your quality of life and potentially cause medical emergencies. Once you start treatment, your doctor will monitor your asthma control. Signs your asthma is not under control and could lead to complications including:

  • Coughing or other symptoms at night

  • Falling peak flow numbers or numbers that vary each day

  • Going to the emergency room or doctor to treat an attack

  • Having symptoms more than twice a week or worsening symptoms that your medicines don’t seem to help

  • Missing work or school or avoiding normal activities due to asthma symptoms

  • Needing rescue medicines more than twice a week

Talk with your doctor if you experience any of these problems. Your current treatment may need adjustment to get your asthma back under control.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 30
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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