Is It Asthma, Allergies or Both?

Learn about the overlap between these two conditions and why allergens may trigger asthma symptoms.

Allergic rhinitis and asthma are both common conditions. While exact numbers are hard to pin down, it is estimated that 25 million adults and children in the United States have allergic rhinitis and another 25 million have asthma.

While they are different conditions, there is overlap. Many people who are diagnosed with asthma also have allergic rhinitis, and the most common type of asthma is allergic asthma, where allergens act as triggers for asthma symptoms.

What are allergies?

An allergy is an immune system reaction to a harmless substance. Normally, the immune system reacts to get rid of germs and heal injuries. You sneeze to rid your nasal passages of germs. Your eyes water to keep harmful particles out. A sprained ankle swells as the area is flooded with fluid and white blood cells. All of these things are appropriate immune responses.

With an allergy, your immune system reacts to things that normally do not trigger any kind of immune response. People are allergic to all sorts of things, including foods, bites and stings from insects, materials and medications. Anything that causes an allergic response is called an allergen.

Allergic rhinitis is inflammation of the nasal membranes that results from allergic reactions. Its symptoms are what we typically call “allergies,” and include nasal congestion, sneezing and irritated eyes, as well as a sore or scratchy throat, coughing, hives and headaches. Common allergens for allergic rhinitis include pollen, mold spores, pet dander and dust mites. You may also hear allergic rhinitis referred to as seasonal allergies, hay fever or indoor and outdoor allergies.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic condition in which the lungs and the airways—the tubes that carry air to and from the lungs—become inflamed. This inflammation causes the airways to spasm, and also causes an excess amount of mucus that blocks the airways. This makes it difficult to breathe normally.

Wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest and feeling out of breath or shortness of breath are all symptoms of asthma. These symptoms can range from mild to severe. An asthma attack (also called an exacerbation or a flare-up) occurs when asthma symptoms become severe.

Asthma can be triggered by a variety of things—physical exercise, cold air, tobacco smoke and stress can all trigger asthma symptoms. Many people have more than one asthma trigger.

How are asthma and allergies connected?

The most common type of asthma is allergic asthma; approximately 60 percent of people who are diagnosed with asthma have allergic asthma. With allergic asthma, allergens trigger asthma symptoms. This includes skin and food allergens as well as allergens like pollen, pet dander, mold and dust mites.

Though they are different conditions, both allergic rhinitis and asthma are inflammatory disorders, and both involve similar immune responses in the body. It is common for people diagnosed with asthma to also have allergic rhinitis, and allergic rhinitis is a risk factor for developing asthma.

If you have symptoms of allergies, asthma or allergic asthma, or have been diagnosed with any of these conditions, it's important to work with your healthcare provider to get an accurate diagnosis and come up with a treatment plan to address your symptoms.

It is also important to understand that conditions like these can change over time and increase your risk for things like sinus infections, bronchitis and pneumonia. See your healthcare provider anytime you start to experience new symptoms, your symptoms worsen or your symptoms are not responding to treatment.

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