Coughing, Sneezing, Wheezing? You May Have Allergic Asthma

How to manage a two-pronged attack on your airways
Composite illustration of lungs, airway having asthma attack

Allergies alone can make you pretty miserable. But sometimes what triggers allergies can create even more havoc — in the form of asthma.

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When you develop sneezing, wheezing and shortness of breath all at once, you may have allergic asthma.

Here, allergist/immunologist Ronald Purcell, MD, explains four things you should know about this condition.

1. The asthma is usually linked to allergic rhinitis

Environmental allergies can affect your airway in unique ways:

  • Allergic rhinitis (hay fever) affects your nose and sinuses, and may cause sneezing, congestion, and an itchy nose and eyes.
  • Asthma mainly affects your lungs, and may cause coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath or rapid breathing.

But when you have allergic asthma, you’ll likely develop both sets of symptoms at once.

In children, the signs can be more subtle, notes Dr. Purcell. Kids may say they’re too tired to play, but parents should check for wheezing or coughing. “If the other kids are running around playing, and your child wants to sit on the sidelines, he or she may be having trouble breathing,” he says.

2. The triggers are in your environment

While many different substances (allergens) can trigger allergic asthma, they all have one thing in common: They’re in the environment, not in your food or your medication.

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“Pet dander, dust mites, cockroaches, mold and pollen can all trigger allergic asthma,” says Dr. Purcell.

If pollen or mold trigger the condition, it may occur only seasonally. If your pets or the dust mites on your bedding trigger it, you may suffer year-round, he notes.

3. It’s important to minimize exposure

Allergy testing can help identify what’s triggering your allergies. Additional testing can help to confirm a diagnosis of asthma.

Once you know you have allergic asthma, identifying and avoiding its triggers will help you control your symptoms. “When possible, take measures to prevent or minimize exposure,” advises Dr. Purcell.

The same methods won’t work for all allergy triggers. For example, “dust mites are not airborne — but cat and dog dander is,” he says.

To reduce allergens in your home, Dr. Purcell recommends:

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  • Using a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to reduce airborne triggers.
  • Minimizing or eliminating pet exposure.
  • Using special dust mite covers on bedding and aiming for indoor humidity levels of 35 percent to minimize dust mite exposure.
  • Eliminating food sources for cockroaches by using sealed food containers and regularly cleaning kitchen floors and surfaces.
  • Changing clothes and showering after you come inside if you’re allergic to pollen, and closing doors and windows when pollen counts are high.

Although mold is more of an outdoor allergen, it can develop indoors (almost always because of a water leak). “Addressing the water leak, then using a diluted bleach solution or a commercial cleaning product is usually sufficient,” says Dr. Purcell.

“Extensive mold intrusion may require a professional mold removal service.”

4. Learn how to manage symptoms

The good news is that today’s treatments for asthma and allergies — mainly medication and inhalers — are very effective.

“They’re relatively easy to use and have minimal side effects,” Dr. Purcell says. “When symptoms are more severe or do not respond to other measures, allergy shots (allergen immunotherapy) is very effective.”

One option that should not be on the table is letting allergic asthma ruin your quality of life. “The goal is to manage your condition so that it never limits the activities you love because they trigger an allergic reaction,” he says.

Working with your doctor will help you find a treatment plan that works for you.

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