Allergies: Why allergens trigger attacks—and how to reduce your exposure

How, and why, allergy triggers can play a role in your asthma.

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 aged 20- to 40-years-old, and 65 percent of asthmatic adults aged 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 page 18.) When someone with asthma encounters an allergen (be it dust particles in the home, 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” substance 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 page 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 kids, and if a pregnant woman has allergies, there’s a one in three chance her baby will have eczema.

The Top 5 Allergens

That can set off symptoms of Asthma
dust mites icon

Dust mites are microscopic creatures that live in pillows, sheets, and bed coverings, mattresses, carpets, clothes, and stuffed toys.

Did you know?  About half a teaspoon of dust contains as many as 1,000 dust mites.

pests icon

Pests like mice in the home give off allergens that can affect those with asthma. 

mold icon

Mold can grow on almost anything where moisture is present: a wet shower stall or tub, in a damp basement, near a leaky faucet or pipe, and even in a wet pile of leaves in the yard. Mold produces tiny spores, or “seeds,” to reproduce. These spores easily become airborne and can trigger asthma attacks, as well as health problems in those with and without asthma.

Did you know?  More than 50% of homes in America have mold issues.

pet icon

Pets shed dander or skin flakes from their fur. Hypoallergenic pets give off less of this dander, making them a better option for those with allergies. Keep in mind, however, that no dog is 100 percent hypoallergenic. Even if you don’t own pets, but are around those that do, you may still experience a reaction if they have pet hair on their clothing and/or belongings.

pollen icon

Pollen from trees, grasses, and weeds like ragweed is a common allergen. While pollen peaks in the spring and fall, it can linger in your air ducts and home all year round.