The Differences Between Asthma and Allergies: A Comprehensive Guide

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

Many people wonder about the differences between asthma and allergies. This is no surprise because both conditions are very closely related to each other. Asthma and allergies often occur together, making it even more difficult to distinguish between them.

A study published in the journal Immunological Reviews suggests that about 80 percent of asthmatic patients also have allergic rhinitis, and 19 to 38 percent of patients with allergic rhinitis are also asthmatic.

The substances that cause allergic reactions are very similar to those that often trigger asthma attacks. What is the difference between the two, and how do you distinguish one from the other?

This article is a comprehensive guide that will clearly show the differences between asthma and allergies, their causes, and possible solutions recommended by asthma and allergy specialists.

Asthma vs. allergies: What’s the difference?

Asthma and allergies tend to be mistaken for each other. They are quite similar and are often triggered by the same substances, such as pollen, mold spores, pet dander, and dust. So what is the difference?

Asthma symptoms are often triggered by the substances mentioned above. They can also be triggered by certain food and skin allergens. All these lead to what is commonly called allergic-induced asthma or allergic asthma. As the name implies, it is asthma from allergies.

When someone experiences an asthma attack, the airways of their lungs become narrow and inflamed, producing excess mucus.

This leads to difficulty breathing and shortness of breath. It may also trigger coughing and wheezing.

Several other triggers can also cause an asthma attack. They can be induced by engaging in physical activity, cold, and/or stress. These are some of the most common triggers of asthma symptoms — other than asthma from allergies.

Allergies can also be induced by certain conditions. They could be caused by hypersensitivity of the immune system or the human body’s reaction to the substances mentioned above.

An older woman breathing freely without asthma and allergies

The body may react to irritants in a variety of ways, from swollen skin to red or teary eyes, itchy welts, a runny nose, and sneezing — among others.

There may be a lot in common between allergies and asthma; however, that doesn’t mean that allergies cause every asthma episode.

Causes of asthma and allergies

The cause of asthma is difficult to pinpoint, as it is quite complex. It is generally thought to be caused by genetic and environmental factors. However, allergies often trigger asthma symptoms.

When this kind of asthma occurs, it is usually a result of an overreaction from a type of immune system cell involved with asthma, dermatitis, and allergic rhinitis.

When someone experiences an asthma attack from dust or cigarette smoke, certain cells in the body, known as dendritic cells, collect the particles and present them to the immune system cells. When someone repeatedly comes into contact with an allergen or irritant, their first line of defense cells are primed and ready for a quick response. This can lead to several asthma-related reactions, such as clogged airways, which cause difficulty breathing and other inflammatory reactions.

Allergies are also caused by the body’s immune cells’ reaction to certain kinds of food or other substances. The immune cells of certain individuals can become oversensitive to certain substances that are otherwise harmless to most individuals.

Are asthma symptoms different from allergies?

Yes! The symptoms of asthma are quite different from those of allergies. People with allergies may experience congestion, sneezing, and other reactions on the skin or in the eyes.

The major symptoms of allergies include:

  • Sneezing or runny nose
  • Itchiness
  • Diarrhea
  • Swollen throat, eyes, and lips
  • Eye irritation
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

However, asthmatic reactions are often associated with the lungs. Asthma attacks cause inflammation in the lungs, leading to further inflammation of other bronchial tubes and blocked airways, which then causes shortness of breath.

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The symptoms of asthma include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing and wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Persistent dry coughs
  • Noisy breathing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Difficulty sleeping with shortness of breath

Patients experiencing any of these symptoms should promptly visit an asthma and allergy clinic for advice on preventive measures.

Can you have both asthma and allergies?

As stated earlier, asthma and allergies often occur together. The substances that often cause hay fever or allergic rhinitis can also trigger an asthma attack. For some people, certain food allergies can also cause asthma attacks.

Allergies and asthma are connected to our immune system. Whenever the immune system senses danger, it sets off alarms in the body to try to protect it.

According to research, babies who develop allergies to certain foods are more likely to develop asthma when they grow older. So yes, a person can have both asthma and allergies.

Managing asthma and allergy symptoms: What specialists should you go to?

There are many ways patients can manage asthma and allergies. Seeing a specialist is very important to learn the extent of the condition and the best management methods. For asthma, your doctor may recommend that you visit a pulmonologist or another respiratory specialist. For both conditions, consulting an allergist may be helpful.

Managing asthma symptoms can be very straightforward. With a few precautionary steps to control allergens and by following their doctor’s treatment plan, patients can easily control symptoms. Below are some ways to manage asthma and allergies.

While there is no cure for asthma, there are certain treatments available that can help manage the symptoms and prevent an asthma attack.

Here are some tips that can help asthma patients manage their condition.

  • Firstly, asthma patients should avoid contact with substances that can trigger their condition. Patients should avoid things like dust, pollen, mold spores, pet dander, and other common triggers as much as possible.

Individuals with asthma can change their environmental conditions and make it as clean as possible, vacuuming and removing rugs and carpets before they can accumulate dust.

  • Use medications that can reduce the symptoms of asthma. Patients can visit a specialist at an asthma and allergy center to find out more about the best medication treatment plan for them.
A woman reaching for an inhaler to manage her asthma symptoms

Bronchodilators like short-acting-adrenoceptors agonists and anticholinergic medications are usually administered through inhalers and can greatly reduce asthma symptoms. They are fast-acting medications that help soothe muscles in the lungs and cause them to relax, opening up the airways again to make breathing easy.

Patients with more severe asthma symptoms might need more treatments. Some of these include:

  • Long-acting beta-adrenoceptors
  • Agonists
  • Corticosteroids
  • Leukotriene antagonists

Patients with severe cases might need additional treatments like oxygen therapy and/or magnesium sulfate intravenous corticosteroids.

Managing allergy symptoms is similar to managing asthma.

There are typically three stages of an allergic reaction. These stages include:

  1. Exposure to allergen: This is the stage when allergens enter the body by being inhaled through the nose, eaten, or touched. These allergens could be dust, smoke, pollen, mold spores, etc.
  2. Early allergic reaction: This is when the body notices the allergens that have entered the body. The immune system views these allergens as invaders and launches a series of attacks to combat them.
  3. Late allergic reaction: In this stage, the body reacts to the allergens that have entered the body. The reaction may not happen until about nine hours after the allergens have entered the body. This is when the body starts to experience symptoms, such as irritation of the eyes, swelling of the throat, itchiness, and the like.

Asthma and allergy specialists may recommend a variety of treatments for managing allergies. Some of them include the following:

  • Antihistamines are effective for the treatment of mild allergies. Some other drugs that patients with allergies may find helpful include leukotriene modifiers, mast cell stabilizers, corticosteroids, and many more. For emergency treatment, you may need an immediate injection of epinephrine.
  • Avoiding allergens or triggers is the most foolproof option for allergy attacks.
  • For serious reactions to unavoidable allergens, immunotherapy is a recommended option. In this therapy, patients are gradually injected with increasing doses of the allergens every week. They start with a tiny amount and gradually increase the dose as the weeks go by. This process desensitizes the immune system, reducing the body’s reaction to allergens. However, this process may take several years to complete.

Wrapping up

Asthma and allergies are conditions that can be simple to manage. If you are asthmatic or have a variety of allergies, you may find relief by following the preventive measures above, using drugs prescribed by your doctor, and visiting an asthma and allergy clinic.

Additionally, if you keep experiencing symptoms or they become more severe, it would be best to visit an asthma and allergy center or seek advice from an asthma and allergy specialist.

March 22, 2023