1. Common Health Problems

Allergies & Asthma

Treat 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 lungs).

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

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

  2. Itchy, irritated, or red skin (e.g., skin rash).

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

  4. Repeated ear and sinus infections.

For a Severe Allergic Reaction

  1. Shortness of breath. A hard time breathing or swallowing. Wheezing.

  2. Severe swelling all over or of the face, lips, tongue, and/or throat.

  3. Pale or bluish lips, skin, and/or fingernails.

  4. Cool, moist skin or sudden onset of pale skin and sweating.

  5. Feeling dizzy, weak, and/or numb. Fainting. Decreasing level of awareness.

For Asthma

  1. A cough lasts more than a week. Coughing may be the only symptom. It may occur during the night or after exercising.

  2. Wheezing.

  3. Prolonged shortness of breath. Breathing gets harder and may hurt. It is harder to breathe out than in.

  4. Chest tightness or pain.

Causes & Risk Factors

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

For Allergies

  1. Breathing allergens from animal dander; dust; grass; weed and tree pollen; mold spores, etc.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 hives.

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

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

  1. Breathing an allergen (e.g., pollen, dust, mold, dander, etc.) or an irritant (e.g., tobacco smoke, air pollution, fumes, perfumes, etc.).

  2. Colds, flu, bronchitis, and sinus infections.

  3. Sulfites (additives in wine and some foods).

  4. Cold air. Temperature and humidity changes.

  5. Exercise, especially outdoors in cold air.

  6. Some medicines, such as aspirin.

  7. Strong feelings, including laughing and crying.

  8. 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., an EpiPen), can be prescribed to use for a severe reaction before emergency care is given.

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.

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


For a Severe Allergic Reaction

  1. Use prescribed medicine, such as an EpiPen, as advised. Then get emergency care!

  2. Wear a medical ID alert tag for things that cause a severe allergic reaction.

  3. Avoid things you are allergic to.

For Other Allergic Reactions

  1. 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.}

  2. Don’t use hot water for baths, showers, or to wash rash areas.

  3. 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.

  4. Avoid things you are allergic to.

For Asthma

  1. Don’t smoke or let others smoke in your home. Stay away from smoke and air pollution.

  2. Drink lots of liquids (2 to 3 quarts a day).

  3. 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 airways.

  4. Stop exercising if you start to wheeze.

  5. Avoid your asthma triggers.

  6. Try to keep your dorm room or bedroom allergen-free.

  7. -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.

  8. -Use curtains and throw rugs that can be washed often. Don’t use drapes.

  9. -If you can, use a vacuum with a HEPA filter and double-thickness bags. Vacuum and dust often. Wear a dust filter mask when you do.

  10. -Reduce clutter in your room. Store items in plastic containers with lids.

  11. -Use a portable air purifier, such as one with a HEPA filter. In the summer, use an air conditioner, if possible.

  12. Don’t consume things with sulfites, such as wine and some shellfish.

  13. Use your peak flow meter, as advised, to monitor your asthma.

  14. Sit up during an asthma attack.

  15. Keep your asthma rescue medicine handy. Take it as prescribed. Don’t take over-the-counter medicines unless cleared first with your health care provider.

Questions to Ask

Do any of these signs occur?

  1. Signs of a severe allergic reaction listed above.

  2. Chest pain or tightening.

  3. Seizure.

  4. Cough that doesn’t let up and a hard time breathing.

Do any of these signs occur?

  1. You can’t say 4 or 5 words between breaths or eat or sleep due to shortness of breath.

  2. Wheezing and you are taking corticosteroid medicine.

  3. Wheezing doesn’t stop after your prescribed treatment.

  4. A fever and heavy breathing.

  5. Your peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) is below 60% of your personal best number.

Do any of these signs occur?

  1. Flushing, redness all over the body or severe hives.

  2. Hoarseness.

  3. Anxiety. Trembling.

  4. Enlarged pupils.

  5. A severe reaction occurred in the past after exposure to a like substance.

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

With asthma, do you have any of these problems?

  1. An asthma attack does not respond to self-care or prescribed medicine.

  2. Asthma attacks are coming more often and/or are getting worse.

  3. You use your bronchodilator more than 2 times a week.

  4. A cough keeps you awake at night.

  5. Signs of an infection occur, such as a fever and/or a cough with mucus that is green, yellow, or bloody-colored.