What Is Allergic Asthma?

Symptoms and Treatment of Allergic Asthma

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Allergic asthma is a type of asthma triggered by the immune system overreacting to an allergen, a harmless substance (like pollen) that the body mistakes as a threat. This allergic response prompts the release of chemicals that constrict the airways and cause asthma symptoms.

Also known as extrinsic asthma, this is the most common type of asthma, affecting about 60% of the 25 million people diagnosed.

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Allergic Asthma Symptoms

Asthma causes inflammation of the bronchioles, the small tubes that carry air into the lungs. The subsequent narrowing of these passages results in the common symptoms of asthma, which include:

Having allergic asthma does not mean that you continually struggle with breathing. Rather, this type of asthma flares up when you inhale a substance you're allergic to.

Since allergic asthma is caused by an allergy, you'll also experience typical allergy symptoms associated with allergic rhinitis. These symptoms include nasal congestion, runny nose, post-nasal drip, throat irritation, sneezing, itchiness, and red or watery eyes.

Causes

Allergic asthma is not completely understood, but it is generally seen as being caused by a combination of inherited factors and environmental conditions.

If you have a family member diagnosed with allergic asthma, you are more likely to develop the condition yourself. More than 100 genes have been identified as relating to allergic asthma; some are associated with the immune system and others are related to lung and airway function.

Having a genetic inclination towards allergic asthma doesn't guarantee that you'll develop the condition. Instead, it's believed that genes plus exposure to irritants, pollutants, and/or allergens leads to the onset of asthma.

Studies suggest that certain environmental factors seem to initiate a change in gene activity in people who have inherited a predisposition towards allergic asthma.

Triggers

Common allergens that affect those with allergic asthma include:

  • Pollen
  • Dust
  • Animal dander
  • Mold

Once the allergen is in your system, it triggers your immune system. Your body then produces immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, which release chemicals like histamine.

This initiates a complex reaction, which consists of:

  • Tightening of the muscles around the bronchi and bronchioles
  • Narrowing of the airways (bronchoconstriction)
  • Swelling of the airways
  • Overproduction of mucus

The result is an asthma attack in which you struggle to get enough air into your lungs. Over time, repeated asthmatic attacks can lead to airway remodeling, which is the permanent narrowing of the bronchial tubes.

Diagnosis

To determine whether your asthma is related to an allergy, your doctor will first conduct a physical exam and intake.

You will be asked about the conditions that seem to bring on your asthma symptoms. For instance, do coughing, wheezing, and other symptoms seem to occur during pollen season or only when you dust?

Your doctor will then run some specific allergy tests to identify whether you have a sensitivity to an allergen.

  • Skin tests: Common allergens are placed on or just under the top layer of your skin to see if you have a reaction.
  • Blood tests: Blood samples are tested to see if allergen exposure causes elevated levels of IgE.

As the different types of asthma can present with the same classic symptoms, confirming that your case is indeed due to an allergic response can help clarify exactly what is prompting your breathing difficulties—and what can be done about it.

Treatment

While allergic asthma can sometimes disrupt your everyday life and may cause complications, most people can learn to manage exposure to allergens and treat symptoms effectively.

Allergic asthma treatment primarily involves three main components:

  • Avoiding your allergic asthma triggers
  • Preventing asthma symptoms with maintenance medication
  • Managing attacks with rescue medication

Trigger Avoidance

By closely monitoring your asthma, you can identify allergens that trigger asthmatic symptoms. The best course you can take is to avoid these triggers whenever possible.

For example, this might involve staying indoors and keeping windows closed when pollen counts are high, if you are triggered by pollen. Or, it could mean washing bedsheets in hot water and vaccuuming your home often to avoid the accumulation of and exposure to dust, if it prompts a reaction for you.

Maintenance Medication

Both allergy and asthma treatments that prevent symptoms are commonly used to manage allergic asthma.

For allergies, your doctor may recommend antihistamines. These drugs are not considered a direct treatment for asthma. However, they can help you control allergy symptoms, which may reduce asthma flare-ups.

In some instances, you may also be able to undergo immunotherapy (allergy shots) to reduce your sensitivity to allergens.

Long-term controller medications, sometimes taken daily, can be used to prevent asthma symptoms. Examples include:

Rescue Medication

Quick-relief medicines are used to treat asthma symptoms that arise despite efforts to prevent attacks. These treatments help relieve breathing problems when they occur, allowing airways that are constricted to open up so you can breathe fully. They include:

Combination quick-relief medicines may also be available. These include both an anticholinergic and a SABA with the medication delivered via inhaler or nebulizer.

Quick-relief medications should not be used regularly. If you find that you need to take rescue medicine more than two times a week, you should discuss it with your doctor, as this is a sign that your asthma is not adequately managed.

A Word From Verywell

Allergies and asthma combine to create a challenging situation. One of the keys to managing your allergic asthma is being sure that all your doctors are aware of your medications and that you work together to form an asthma action plan that includes insight from an allergist, asthma specialist, and any other doctors you see regularly.

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