Last week we talked about asthma-COPD overlap syndrome (ACOS), and how some individuals with COPD may also have asthma. Today we’re going to look at how asthma sometimes has another connection—to allergies.
Let’s start by looking at what allergies are. Your immune system protects you from bacteria, viruses, and other elements that get into your body and make you sick. For most people, certain airborne substances are not even noticed. But for those with allergies, immunoglobulin, a protein found in the cells of the immune system, fight against substances such as animal dander, dust mites, pollens, and molds. In this fight, they overreact, causing an allergic reaction to these substances. Allergic reactions can show up in different ways.
If they affect the:
- sinuses and nasal airways, this causes allergic rhinitis—sneezing, and an itchy, runny nose.
- eyes, this is called allergic conjunctivitis—itchy, watery eyes.
- lungs, this may show up as excess mucus, narrowing and/or inflammation of the bronchial airways, coughing, and wheezing.
You can see that even though your immune system is trying to protect you from a substance invading your body, in doing so, if it overreacts, that can make you sick.
So, what do allergies have to do with asthma? Simply put, having allergies is a risk factor for developing asthma. However, it’s important to know that not everyone with allergies gets asthma.
Meet Phyllis, as she shares her story of allergies and asthma. Please note that this is one person’s story and not an indication of what may occur with others.
When I was about ten years old, I started to get a runny nose and itchy eyes every spring. It seems strange now, but at the time, in the mid-1960s, it didn’t occur to us—to me, my mom, or my dad, that I had allergies. We looked at these symptoms, simply, as an inconvenience. I sneezed all day long, my eyes watered, my throat itched, and the only place I felt relief was when I put my face up against our window air conditioner. I’m not faulting my parents, not at all. At that time, we simply didn’t know what we didn’t know.
As I grew, my allergies got worse. Every spring, from about mid-April to the end of May I had problems. My sinuses were clogged, and I blew my nose and scratched my eyes through elementary school, junior high, high school, and college. In my family, being unable to function was never an option, so I never asked for help.
When I was about 30 years old, I had two small children and was working as a respiratory therapist on second shift at our local hospital. On most days in the early spring, after getting my kids up and on their way to school I couldn’t do much more than sit at the kitchen table with a box of tissues until about 11 am.
One day my sister-in-law told me that whatever was going on with my sneezing and itching was really bad, and that I needed to see an allergist. On my first visit to the allergy and asthma specialist, he told me that at this rate, I’d have asthma in ten years.* I started allergy shots. That helped a little, but the damage had been done. He was right. Just about ten years after that, I started having trouble breathing.
Looking back now… sure, I missed out on a lot when I was growing up, but we can’t go back in time. All I can say is that we know so much more now than we did then. Allergies, not the harmless inconvenience we once thought they were, can—and in my case—lead to asthma.
Paying attention to symptoms and taking them seriously, becoming educated about what’s happening and why, going to the right doctor, and taking medications as prescribed, can help you be in control of your allergies instead of your allergies controlling you.
Today, Phyllis can go outside in the springtime, work in her garden, and walk—not through— but past a field of flowers… essentially symptom-free. In addition to the prescribed maintenance inhaler she takes every day, year-round, she takes a non-prescription corticosteroid nasal spray and a daily allergy tablet in April and May. Sure, Phyllis lost out on some good times as she was growing up, but she’s happy things are different now, and she does her best to make the most of every day—especially in the spring.
Do you have allergies that led to asthma?
Let’s talk! I look forward to hearing from you!
*Not everyone with allergies gets asthma. However, for those with allergies who do develop asthma, each individual situation determines the timeframe.