Asthma and allergies have enough similarities to cause confusion for patients. Understanding the differences between the two is important in determining the next steps for addressing any asthma-like symptoms.
Asthma or Allergies
Allergies and asthma can cause identical symptoms, despite being entirely different. Asthma is a chronic disease that causes airway inflammation, whereas an allergic reaction occurs when the immune system overreacts to a harmless substance (called an allergen). The two things manifest in similar ways, but allergies and asthma are treated differently, with specialized medications available for each.
Symptoms of asthma often flare up in response to allergic reactions. Exposure to dust mites, pollens, and the like can cause an asthma attack, as well as allergic reactions such as sneezing and itchiness. Asthma attacks can also be triggered by any number of other things, from physical activity to cold air and other environmental factors.
My Child Was Diagnosed with Asthma
Symptoms of asthma attacks vary from shortness of breath to wheezing and coughing. If a child shows one or more of these symptoms, then it’s time to make an appointment with an allergist or immunologist, who can test for the presence of asthma. As always, when in doubt, consult with your child’s doctor.
What Causes Kids’ Asthma?
There are a number of potential factors that cause childhood asthma, including family history and inheritance, certain types of infections at a young age, and exposure to certain environmental factors such as obesity and living in an area with high levels of air pollution. People with asthma often suffer from diagnosed food allergies, as well as a history of allergies in the family. These factors are by no means guarantees or certainties that asthma will develop, but there is some documented correlation.
Signs of childhood asthma can range quite a bit and can linger for some time. Parents should be on the lookout for the following signs:
- Coughing, especially at night.
- A wheezing or whistling sound, especially when exhaling.
- Trouble breathing or fast breathing that causes the skin around the ribs or neck to pull in tightly.
- Frequent colds that settle in the chest.
These symptoms are often exacerbated by the presence of common asthma triggers, such as pollutants and allergens like pollen and dust mites.
Treating Asthma in Children
If your child (or anybody, for that matter) is diagnosed with asthma, the next step is the creation of an asthma action plan, developed in partnership with a doctor. The Mayo Clinic states that the proper execution of these plans typically requires asthmatics to follow three important steps:
1. Track the symptoms.
It is important to write down daily symptoms in an asthma diary. Recording symptoms can help people to recognize when they need to make treatment adjustments. Things to look out for include: shortness of breath, chest tightness, inhaler use, and disruptions to everyday activities.
2. Record how well the lungs are working.
This involves performing the two primary lung function tests. A peak flow test can be performed at home and indicates how fast one can force air out of their lungs. A spirometry test, which is more often performed at a doctor’s office, measures how much air one’s lungs can hold and how much can be exhaled in one second. This measurement is called forced expiratory volume (also known as FEV1).
3. Adjust treatment according to the asthma action plan.
If your lungs don’t function as well as they should, you may need to adjust your medications according to the doctor-created asthma action plan. The plan should let you know precisely when and how to make any needed treatment adjustments.
Categories of Asthma Treatment
Asthma medications generally fall into two categories, and most asthmatics use both types. Long-term control medication (such as inhaled corticosteroids) play an important role in keeping asthma under control. These are preventive medications that treat the airway inflammation that leads to asthma symptoms. Used daily, they can reduce or even eliminate asthma flare-ups.
Quick-relief, or rescue medications, contain fast-acting medicines that quickly open up the airway to make breathing easier. Each patient’s individual asthma action plan dictates when to take these medications.
Watching for Asthma Triggers
A critical part of managing asthma is being aware of potential triggers and managing exposure to them. The CDC lists a number of common triggers that asthmatics should make an effort to avoid. These include the following:
- Tobacco smoke
- Dust mites
- Outdoor air pollution
- Cockroaches and their droppings
- Smoke from burning wood or grass