What Are Respiratory Allergies?

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Allergies occur when your body misidentifies a harmless substance (called an allergen) as dangerous. Your immune system responds to the false alarm and begins to make antibodies against the allergen. The next time you come in contact with the substance, the antibodies cue the release of allergic chemicals into the bloodstream, resulting in allergy symptoms.

Respiratory allergies affect the respiratory system. Allergic asthma and allergic rhinitis are the two types of respiratory allergies. Allergic rhinitis (also called hay fever) results in nasal symptoms and itchy, watery eyes, while allergic asthma results in airway constriction.

This article explains the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of respiratory allergies. 

Person with brown skin and long, brown hair blows their nose

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Respiratory Allergy Symptoms

Respiratory allergies, as the name suggests, impact the airways and nasal passages of the respiratory system.

Symptoms of hay fever include:

What Is Hay Fever?

Hay fever can be seasonal or year-round, depending on the cause. It affects up to 60 million Americans.

Symptoms of allergic asthma include:

Common Causes

Scientists don’t fully understand why people develop respiratory allergies. However, they believe that genetics and environmental factors play a role in their development.

With a respiratory allergy, an allergen causes your symptoms. Like hay fever, some allergens are present seasonally, while others are present year-round.

Allergens that may trigger respiratory allergies include:

Diagnosis

If you have allergies, your healthcare professional will do a physical exam and take your medical history. In addition, they will likely perform allergy tests to determine what you’re allergic to.

Allergy Tests

There are two basic types of allergy tests. They include:

  • Skin test: This test is the most reliable of allergy tests. It involves scraping a small section of skin with an allergen, then watching to see if you react. Alternatively, the allergen may be injected with a small needle or dropped onto the skin.
  • Blood test: A radioallergosorbent (RAST) test or the newer enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test measures allergy-specific antibodies in your blood. These tests are less reliable than skin testing.

Asthma Tests

If you experience symptoms of allergic asthma, allergy tests can also help you identify your triggers. That way, you can avoid them and prevent future allergy attacks.

In addition to allergy testing, asthma testing includes:

  • Spirometry: This test measures how much air moves in and out of your lungs.
  • Peak airflow: This test measures how quickly you expel air when you forcefully exhale after a deep inhalation.
  • Fractional exhaled nitric oxide (FeNO) test: A FeNO test measures the amount of nitric oxide in your breath, which can help determine the level of inflammation in your airways.
  • Provocation test: This test measures lung function after exposure to specific triggers.

Asthma Tests for Children

Children under age 5 aren’t usually given breathing tests. Instead, a healthcare provider will assess their symptoms, and if indicated, offer them a bronchodilator (commonly called an inhaler). If the inhaler relieves their symptoms, they likely have asthma.

How Common Is Asthma?

More than 25 million Americans have asthma. Asthma triggered by allergens is the most common type of asthma. Allergic asthma makes up 60% of asthma cases.

Treatment

The primary treatment for respiratory allergies is to avoid allergens that trigger your symptoms. If you’re unsure what your allergens are, allergy testing is valuable to establish what you need to avoid.

Avoid Triggers

To avoid allergens, try the following:

  • Place zippered coverings on your pillows and mattresses.
  • Wash bedding frequently in hot water.
  • Limit stuffed animals in the bedroom.
  • Replace wall-to-wall carpeting with hard flooring.
  • Dust regularly with a damp rag.
  • Keep windows closed during pollen season.
  • Shower and change clothes after being outside.
  • Rinse your nasal passages.
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom.
  • Wash your hands after touching your pet.
  • Bathe your pet frequently to reduce exposure to dander.
  • Keep high-moisture areas (kitchen and bathroom) clean and free of mold.
  • Keep your home’s humidity between 30% to 50%.
  • Avoid smoke, fragrances, and cold air.

Control Symptoms With Medication

Avoiding allergens entirely isn’t always possible or practical. Often, people find that they must also manage their allergy symptoms and work to avoid allergens.

Managing allergies may involve:

  • Nasal sprays: These are the most effective treatment for nasal allergies. They reduce swelling and nasal allergy symptoms. These sprays may include steroids, antihistamines, anticholinergics, and mast cell stabilizers.
  • Antihistamines: An antihistamine blocks the histamine receptor and reduces respiratory allergy symptoms. 
  • Decongestants: These reduce congestion.
  • Epinephrine: Known commonly as an EpiPen, this treats anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction. 
  • Immunotherapy: These allergy shots work like a vaccine by injecting an allergen at increasing doses to develop tolerance to that allergen. Allergy shots are a long-term treatment that may be an option for people who cannot avoid their triggers or if medications don’t work.
  • Bronchodilators: If you have allergic asthma, your healthcare provider might also prescribe an inhaler for you to use when you have an asthma attack. These devices work by widening your airway to help you breathe better. Short-acting inhalers are for use as needed when you have trouble breathing. Long-acting inhalers are for use daily to prevent breathing issues.

Complementary Therapies

Complementary therapies are treatments you might use alongside standard medical treatment for your allergies. These might include:

  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese practice that involves inserting needles into a person’s skin in certain areas of the body. One small study found acupuncture to be an effective way to help manage allergic rhinitis when done alongside traditional medication. However, more research is needed.
  • Herbal and homeopathic remedies: Homeopathy is based on the notion that “like cures like,” meaning an illness can be cured by a substance that triggers similar symptoms in a healthy person. Homeopathic medicines come from plants, minerals, and animals. In one study done in 2015, participants saw a reduction of allergic rhinitis symptoms with the use of homeopathy as a complementary therapy.
  • Nasal irrigation: This technique consists of using saltwater or a saline solution to clean out your nasal cavity. It’s a cost-effective and well-tolerated way to help control allergy symptoms.

It’s important to have a conversation with your healthcare provider before trying any complementary therapies. They can better assess if the type of treatment is right for you.

Summary

Allergies occur when your body identifies something typically harmless as a dangerous foreign object. Your immune system responds to the false alarm and begins to make antibodies against the allergen. Respiratory allergies affect your respiratory system.

Typical symptoms of respiratory allergies include sneezing, congestion, and watery eyes. An allergy test can help you identify and avoid your triggers to prevent an allergic reaction.

Although there’s no cure for respiratory allergies, treatment is available to help control symptoms. Treatment options include immunotherapy, antihistamines, nasal sprays, and more. Certain complementary therapies can also help to control symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

If you have respiratory allergies, it’s essential to treat your condition. Seeking out a diagnosis is important because it will help you know which allergens to avoid. It will also allow you to work with your healthcare provider on a treatment plan.

While hay fever is often more of a nuisance, unmanaged allergic asthma can be life-threatening. If you ever notice that you have difficulty breathing, start wheezing, or have a tight feeling in your chest, call your healthcare provider right away. They will likely want to do allergy and asthma testing.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can respiratory allergies be cured?

    There is no cure for allergies. However, immunotherapy (allergy shots) may significantly increase your tolerance to allergens over time.

  • Which are the most common respiratory allergens?

    Environmental allergens most commonly cause allergic rhinitis. These include things like trees, grass, ragweed pollen, mold, dust, and pet dander.

  • How long can a respiratory allergy last?

    Respiratory allergies are typically lifelong. However, some people outgrow them over time. Most often, you’ll need to learn which allergens trigger your symptoms and determine a plan for preventing and managing symptoms.

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