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Section I–Common Health Problems - Allergies & Asthma

HealthyLife® Students' Self-Care Guide

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 Section I–Common Health Problems

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Allergies & Asthma

your symptoms before they get out of control. Don’t feel too proud to get
treatment. Know your limits! Remember to follow all of your doctor’s
instructions and don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

Dave S., University of Michigan

Allergies and asthma can be triggered by the same substances, but they
are two different conditions.

With an allergy, the immune system reacts to a substance
(allergen) that is normally harmless. An allergen can be inhaled, swallowed,
or come in contact with the skin. Allergies refer to many conditions,
such as eczema, hay fever, and a serious condition called anaphylaxis. This
sudden, severe allergic reaction occurs within minutes of exposure. It is a
medical emergency.

Asthma is one condition – a chronic, lower respiratory
disease that affects the bronchial tubes (the main air passages in the

A person can have allergies without asthma; asthma with few or no
allergies; or both. About 80% of asthma in children and about half of asthma
in adults may be related to allergies.

Signs & Symptoms

For Common Allergies

Runny, stuffy, or itchy nose. Sneezing.
Burning, itchy, or watery eyes. Dark circles under the eyes.

Itchy, irritated, or red skin (e.g., skin

Loss of smell or taste. Frequent throat
clearing. Hoarseness. Coughing or wheezing.

Repeated ear and sinus infections

For a Severe Allergic

Shortness of breath. A hard time
breathing or swallowing. Wheezing.
Severe swelling all over or of the
face, lips, tongue, and/or throat
Pale or bluish lips, skin, and/or
Cool, moist skin or sudden onset of
pale skin and sweating
Feeling dizzy, weak, and/or numb.
Fainting. Decreasing level of awareness.

For Asthma

A cough lasts more than a week.
Coughing may be the only symptom. It may occur during the night or
after exercising.
Prolonged shortness of breath.
Breathing gets harder and may hurt. It is harder to breathe out than
Chest tightness or pain

Causes & Risk

In both allergies and asthma, the immune system releases chemicals that
cause inflammation. With asthma, the inflammation is in the breathing tubes.
With allergies, the inflammatory response can affect the eyes, nasal
passages, the skin, etc.

For Allergies

Breathing allergens from animal
dander; dust; grass; weed and tree pollen; mold spores, etc.
Ingesting allergens (e.g., food and
medicines). Common food allergens are milk, fish, nuts, wheat, corn,
and eggs. Common medicine allergens are penicillin and aspirin.
Allergens that come in contact with
the skin. Examples are cosmetics, latex, poison ivy, and metals.
These can result in skin rashes like eczema, contact dermatitis, and

{Note: Insect stings,
nuts, penicillin, and shellfish are common causes of a severe allergic

For Asthma
The exact cause for asthma is not known. A family history of it
and/or having allergies increases the risk for asthma. It is also more
common in children who live in houses with pets and/or tobacco smoke.

Asthma Attack Triggers

Breathing an allergen (e.g., pollen,
dust, mold, dander, etc.) or an irritant (e.g., tobacco smoke, air
pollution, fumes, perfumes, etc.)
Respiratory infections (colds, flu,
bronchitis, sinus infections)
Sulfites (additives in wine and some
Cold air. Temperature and humidity
Exercise, especially outdoors in cold
Some medicines, such as aspirin
Strong feelings, including laughing
and crying
Hormone changes (with menstrual
periods, etc.)


For Allergies
Avoid the allergen(s). Skin tests can identify allergens.
Allergy shots may be prescribed. Medications can prevent and relieve
symptoms. Medicine (e.g., EpiPen), can be prescribed to use for a severe
reaction before emergency care.

For Asthma
Asthma is too complex to treat with over-the-counter
products. A doctor should diagnose and monitor asthma. He or she may
prescribe one or more medicines. Some kinds are to be taken with an
asthma attack. Other kinds are taken daily (or as prescribed) to help
prevent asthma attacks.

An annual flu vaccine is advised. Regular doctor visits are needed to
detect any problems and evaluate your use of medicines.


Questions to Ask

Do any of these signs occur?
  • Signs of a severe allergic reaction listed
  • Chest pain or tightening
  • Seizure
  • Cough that doesn’t let up and a hard time breathing

Do any of these signs occur?
  • Blue lips or fingernails
  • Fainting or dizziness
  • You can’t say 4 or 5 words between breaths or eat or sleep due to
    shortness of breath.
  • Wheezing and you are taking corticosteroid medicine
  • Wheezing doesn’t stop after your prescribed treatment.
  • A fever with heavy breathing
  • Your peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) is below 60% of your personal
    best number.

Do any of these signs occur?
  • Flushing, redness all over the body or severe hives
  • Hoarseness
  • Anxiety. Trembling.
  • Enlarged pupils
  • A severe reaction occurred in the past after exposure to a like

Is your peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) 60 to 80% of your personal best

With asthma, do you have any of these problems?
  • An asthma attack does not respond to self-care or prescribed
  • Asthma attacks are coming more often and/or are getting worse.
  • You use your bronchodilator more than 2 times a week.
  • A cough keeps you awake at night.
  • Signs of an infection, such as a fever, and/or cough with mucus
    that is green, yellow, or bloody-colored



For a Severe Allergic

Take prescribed medicine, such as
EpiPen, as advised. Then get emergency care!
Wear a medical ID alert tag for things
that cause a severe allergic reaction.
Avoid things you are allergic to.

For Other Allergic Reactions

For hives and itching, take an OTC
antihistamine, such as Benadryl. Take it as prescribed by your
doctor or as directed on the label. {Note: If you have asthma, do
not take an antihistamine.}
Don’t use hot water for baths,
showers, or to wash rash areas.
For itching, use an oatmeal bath or
calamine (not Caladryl) lotion. Or, use a paste made with 3 tsp. of
baking soda and 1 teaspoon of water.
Avoid things you are allergic to.

For Asthma

Don’t smoke or let others smoke in
your home. Stay away from smoke and air pollution.
Drink lots of liquids (2 to 3 quarts a
Wear a scarf around your mouth and
nose when you are outside in cold weather to warm the air as you
breathe it in. This prevents cold air from reaching sensitive
Stop exercising if you start to
Avoid your asthma triggers.
Try to keep your bedroom allergen
  • Sleep with no pillow or the kind your
    doctor suggests. Use a plastic or “allergen-free” cover on your
    mattress and pillow (if you use one). Wash mattress pads in hot
    water every week.
  • Use throw rugs, not carpeting. Don’t
    use drapes.
  • If you can, use a vacuum with a HEPA
    filter. Vacuum and dust often. Wear a dust filter mask when you do.
  • Don’t use perfumes
  • Put an electronic air filter on your
    furnace or use portable air purifiers. Change and/or wash furnace
    and air conditioner filters regularly. If you use a portable
    humidifier or vaporizer, use distilled (not tap) water.
Don’t consume things with sulfites,
such as wine and some shellfish.
Use your peak flow meter, as advised,
to monitor your asthma.
Sit up during an asthma attack.
Keep your asthma rescue medicine
handy. Take it as prescribed.
Use acetaminophen, not aspirin.

Information, Contact:

Asthma and
Allergy Foundation of America

800.7.ASTHMA (727.8462)

6th edition. American Institute for Preventive Medicine
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December 08, 2005