How and why certain allergies can make asthma symptoms worse.

Those who suffer from asthma share similar stories of allergens like pollen, ragweed, and dust triggering wheezing and difficulty breathing.

There’s good reason for this: asthma symptoms are often provoked by the very same substances that trigger allergy symptoms. In fact, allergic asthma, as this particular condition is called, is the most common type of asthma in our country, affecting 50 percent of adults with asthma and 90 percent of children. What’s more, almost 75 percent of asthmatic adults ages 20- to 40-years-old, and 65 percent of asthmatic adults ages 55 years and older, have at least one allergy. Bottom line: there’s very often a link between asthma and allergies.

Both begin with our powerful immune system—and the subsequent inflammation fired up by immune cells. (Read more about inflammation on p. 18.) When someone with asthma encounters an allergen (be it dust particles in the home, pollen or ragweed in the air, or sulfites in some wines, for example), the immune system goes into overdrive. It sees these allergens as harmful substances to the body and makes every attempt to get rid of them. Hence, coughing, sneezing, and even excess mucus production in the airways, triggering chest tightness and wheezing, occurs. These symptoms are all an attempt by the immune system to get rid of the offending “invader” and are signs of inflammation.

When the body is exposed to these “invading” substances, the immune system releases a protein called immunoglobin E or IgE (see p. 21). Too much IgE in the blood triggers even more inflammation and swelling. (Your doctor can determine if you have allergic asthma through a skin prick or blood test that measures this IgE.) In the case of those with asthma, this swelling targets the airways in the lungs and the lungs themselves, making it harder to breathe and often triggering an asthma attack.

It’s this immune response that’s the reason why there is such a strong correlation between allergies, asthma, and even eczema or atopic dermatitis—a common allergic skin disease that usually starts in early childhood. Many children, for example, who have eczema grow up to have additional allergies and asthma. What’s more, 35 percent of adults with asthma also had allergies and/or eczema when they were growing up, and if a pregnant woman has allergies herself, there’s a one in three chance her baby will develop eczema too.

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