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Must-Know Facts About Allergies and Asthma

A man sneezes while hiking

By Dr. Joseph Vizzoni

Allergies are a fact of life. More than 50 million Americans experience allergies each year, and they’re our sixth leading cause of chronic illness.

People are allergic to all kinds of things, from medicines to certain foods, insects, pets, pollen, mold, and latex. And different allergy types affect different body areas (like the eyes, ears, nose, skin, lungs, stomach, and intestines).

Some allergies are just extremely annoying and uncomfortable, but others can send you straight to the emergency room. Asthma can be very dangerous, too.

I’d like to touch on some of the most important things you should know about allergies to minimize your misery and handle emergencies.

Respiratory allergies

Respiratory allergies have many of the same symptoms as respiratory infections — like sneezing, runny nose, congestion, and postnasal drip. COVID-19 can cause these kinds of symptoms too. So how do you know whether it’s an infection or an allergy?

  • If you always get symptoms in the spring or the fall, you’re probably allergic to some kind of pollen.
  • If you always get symptoms in certain settings, you’re probably allergic to animal dander, mold, or dust mites.

There are prescription and over-the-counter medicines that can help relieve these symptoms. The most common types are:

  • Antihistamines, which block a chemical that causes allergy symptoms
  • Decongestants, which relieve stuffiness
  • Corticosteroids, which reduce inflammation

Some medicines have to be taken daily throughout the allergy season to be effective. Others can be habit forming and shouldn’t be used for more than a few days in a row.

Generic versions offer the same benefits as their name-brand counterparts and can save you money. In any event, talk to your doctor before you start taking any new allergy drugs, because they can also be dangerous. For instance, many decongestants should not be used by people with certain heart conditions.

Of course, the best way to avoid discomfort is to avoid the allergen itself. That can be easier said than done, but the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) has some useful tips.

Asthma

Asthma is a respiratory disease that causes symptoms like wheezing, coughing, breathlessness, and a tightness in your chest. It can be triggered by allergies, irritants in the air, exercise, weather, various health conditions, certain medicines, or even strong emotions. Its severity can range from discomfort to a life-threatening crisis. And having asthma can make you more vulnerable to other diseases, like COVID-19.

It may be necessary to take daily medicines and/or quick-relief inhalers or nebulizers to keep your asthma under control. If you think you have asthma, or your asthma is out of control, talk to your doctor.

Food, medicine, latex, and insect sting allergies

Allergic reactions to foods, medicines, latex, or insect stings can be very dangerous. So it’s important to recognize the symptoms:

  • Tingling or itching in the mouth, or difficulty swallowing (for food allergies)
  • Hives, itching, and/or swelling in the affected area
  • Wheezing or trouble breathing
  • Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting
  • Feeling dizzy and lightheaded

The most dangerous reaction is anaphylaxis, which causes the airways to constrict and can make breathing difficult. Affected individuals can also go into shock, have a big drop in blood pressure or a rapid pulse, or experience dizziness, lightheadedness, or loss of consciousness.

If someone is having symptoms of this type — especially anaphylaxis — it’s vital to get them to an emergency room as quickly as possible. It’s also important to know how to use an epinephrine autoinjector before anaphylaxis happens. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for details.

Skin allergies

Contact dermatitis is an allergy affecting your skin. It manifests as an itchy, sometimes blistery rash that can be very aggravating. The classic example is poison ivy, but other plants can cause it. So can soaps, cosmetics, fragrances, and jewelry.

Usually symptoms pass with time (once you’re no longer exposed to the allergen). There are a lot of over-the-counter products that can provide relief, and some medicines (corticosteroids) that a doctor can prescribe for severe cases. Try not to scratch (it’s harder than it sounds!) because your skin could get infected.

See a doctor if:

  • The rash is so uncomfortable you can’t sleep or carry on your usual activities.
  • It doesn’t get better within three weeks.
  • Your face or genitals are affected.
  • You start to have a fever or think you might have a skin infection.

And get emergency care if your lungs, eyes, or sinuses are painful and inflamed — because mucus membranes can also have a contact dermatitis reaction, and that can be serious.

Resources for our members

If you have an AmeriHealth New Jersey (AHNJ) health plan, our Provider Finder can help you locate a doctor near you.

You can also talk to a doctor virtually 24/7 through MDLIVE via phone, computer, or mobile app, and these doctors can diagnose allergies and prescribe medicines if appropriate.

Hopefully this overview makes it easier to tell whether you’re having allergies or asthma, what to do if your problem is moderate, and especially what to do if it’s severe!

Dr. Joseph Vizzoni is a medical director for AmeriHealth New Jersey.