National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month
Allergy and asthma season is back. Since 1984, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation has recognized May as “National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month.” Over 65 million individuals in the U.S. have allergies and asthma. Unfortunately, there is no cure for allergies or asthma; however, these conditions can be managed with the appropriate treatment and prevention.
Asthma is a chronic illness that causes swelling and inflammation of the airways. This, in turn, causes the airways to narrow, which makes breathing harder. According to the CDC, about 1 in 13 individuals in the U.S. have asthma (approximately 25 million people). Asthma affects all ages but usually starts in childhood. Asthma symptoms include wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. These symptoms can be triggered by various things such as allergens (e.g., pollen, dust, pet dander), cold air, exercise, infections, and tobacco smoke. If these symptoms become worse than usual, it is called an asthma attack. Asthma attacks can be life-threatening. In 2018, asthma led to more than 170,000 hospital stays and 1.6 million emergency department visits. Approximately 11 people in the U.S. die from asthma daily.
Your healthcare provider can diagnose asthma by medical history, physical exam, and lung function tests to see how well your lungs work. Treatment of asthma includes managing your symptoms and preventing asthma attacks. Short-term medications are used for quick symptom relief. These medications open up swollen airways quickly. Usually, this is an inhaler that is carried at all times. Long-term medications are used daily to keep asthma under control. These medications work to reduce inflammation and narrowing of the airways. Prevention includes knowing and avoiding triggers, avoiding smoke exposure, staying up to date on vaccinations, taking medications as prescribed, and recognizing signs that your asthma is getting worse.
Allergies are another chronic illness—more than 50 million individuals in the U.S. experience some variation of allergies each year. An allergy is when your immune system reacts to a foreign substance. This substance is something you eat, inject, inhale or touch. Symptoms of an allergic reaction include hives, rashes, itchy eyes, sneezing, and scratchy throat. Anaphylaxis, a severe allergy attack, can cause shortness of breath, low blood pressure, asthma attacks, and possible death. Most people with allergies have more than one type. Some examples of allergens include pollen, dust, pet dander, and certain foods or medications. Your healthcare provider can diagnose allergies by medical history, physical exam, and allergen tests (e.g., skin, patch, or blood). These tests alone can’t diagnose allergies but can be used as a guide for diagnosis.
Treatment of allergies includes avoiding allergens, taking medications, and/or immunotherapy. One common medication is antihistamines (e.g., Zyrtec, Claritin, Benadryl). These medications block histamine, which is responsible for the allergic response. Another common medication is nasal corticosteroids (e.g., Flonase) which reduce the swelling that causes a stuffy, runny nose. In more severe reactions, oral corticosteroids and/or epinephrine may be needed. Immunotherapy can be an option for some allergies. The most common types include allergy shots and sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT). Both options introduce the allergen in small doses over time to eventually make the person less sensitive to that allergen.
If you have asthma, allergies, or both, please talk to your healthcare provider about the available treatment options to have the best management strategy. Get treated early this May so you can take full advantage of the beautiful outdoors.
Dr. Abraham is a resident physician who sees patients of all ages and provides obstetrical services at Lone Star Family Health Center, a non-profit 501©3 Federally Qualified Health Center operating facilities in Conroe, Spring, Willis, Grangerland, and Huntsville, and serving as home to a fully integrated Family Medicine Residency Program to increase the number of Family Medicine physicians for Texas and our community.