For people with asthma, the arrival of summer, which is right around the corner here in Northwest Ohio, can coincide with a worsening of symptoms—the wheezing, chest tightness, coughing, and breathlessness that make their lives miserable. Not only does summer’s hot, humid weather aggravate this chronic pulmonary condition, but so does the higher presence of airborne allergens and irritants. For those with exercise-induced asthma, the otherwise healthy act of becoming more active in summertime can even trigger symptoms.
When we think of seasonal allergies, symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, congestion, and watery, itchy eyes usually come to mind. However, another disease that can go hand in hand with allergies is asthma, characterized by inflammation of the bronchial tubes, increased mucus secretion in the lungs, and narrowing of the airways, also known as bronchospasm. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), asthma affects an estimated 26 million Americans and is one of the leading causes of work and school absences.
Of course, not all allergy sufferers develop asthma and not all cases of asthma are allergy-related. Furthermore, some allergy sufferers primarily experience upper-respiratory symptoms while some develop asthma and some experience both, though it’s not fully understood why this is the case. It’s also not known why some people have allergies as a child but then develop asthma later in life.
Among the common seasonal allergens that can cause asthma symptoms are the various tree, grass, and weed pollens produced in succession throughout the warmer months. Year-round triggers, such as pet dander and dust mites, can contribute to the problem as well.
The ACAAI notes that exercise-induced asthma, also called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, “is caused by the loss of heat, water or both from the airways during exercise when quickly breathing in air that is drier than what is already in the body. Symptoms typically appear within a few minutes after you start exercising and may continue for 10 to 15 minutes after you finish your workout.” (source: acaai.org)
The good news is, while asthma cannot be cured, it can be managed very effectively like other chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes. In fact, the vast majority of cases can be controlled with simple medications, and with proper treatment, most people with asthma should remain relatively symptom-free and enjoy a full and active life.
Avoidance of known triggers is the first line of defense against allergic asthma. For instance, people with this condition should consider:
- Staying indoors on hot, dry, or windy days when pollen tends to be at its worst.
- Limiting outdoor activities to mid-day versus the early morning and evening when the pollen count is usually higher.
- Wearing a dust mask when doing outdoor chores.
- Changing clothes and showering after spending time outdoors.
- Keeping windows closed and using air conditioning for cooling (both at home and in the car).
- Frequently (at least weekly) vacuuming rugs and carpeting, preferably using a vacuum cleaner equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
- Frequently damp mopping floors and wiping down other hard surfaces with a damp cloth or sponge.
- Running a dehumidifier to keep the home’s air dry.
- Using a HEPA filter in the bedroom.
- Washing bedding in hot water (at least 130 degrees F).
- If practical, replacing carpeting with hardwood or laminate flooring.
- Bathing furry pets often and banishing them from the bedroom.
However, strict avoidance of allergy triggers is not always practical, so it’s important for people with allergic asthma—or any form of the disease—to seek treatment as well. The appropriate treatment regimen will vary from patient to patient but often includes some form of long-term “controller” medication to reduce inflammation, along with a fast-acting “rescue” medication to manage bronchospasm. For asthma sufferers who still experience symptoms despite these common medications, there are other classes of drugs doctors can prescribe to address different aspects of the inflammatory process. For example, cutting-edge biologic drugs, such as reslizumab, mepolizumab, omalizumab, benralizumab, and dupilumab, have been shown to decrease the rate of asthma flare-ups and improve quality of life in individuals with severe uncontrolled asthma. (source: acaai.org)
With any asthma-treatment regimen involving medications, it’s critical to continue taking the prescribed medicine on a regular basis. People with asthma who discontinue their medications because they’re feeling better find that their symptoms inevitably return. Also, asthma symptoms often change over time, so treatment may need to be adjusted to keep them in check.
Allergy immunotherapy—administering gradually increasing amounts of an allergen over time so the body builds a tolerance—may also be a good option for people with allergic asthma. Immunotherapy typically involves injections, though sublingual tablets are now available for treating a small number of allergens. An allergist can advise whether immunotherapy is right for you and recommend the appropriate form of the treatment.