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They Look Alike, So How Can I Tell if It’s Asthma or Allergies?

May 01, 2019

Asthma and allergies are two of the leading causes of chronic illness in children, and the number children experiencing those conditions is increasing due to a range of potential factors. Although asthma and allergies can interact, as well as share common symptoms—including coughing and shortness of breath—it’s important to understand the difference between them. Still, asthma and allergies present in different ways in different age groups. So it’s best to consult with your pediatrician or an allergist if symptoms do arise.

These symptoms can help you understand whether your child has asthma, allergies or both:

Symptoms of Asthma and Allergies

The main symptom of asthma is a persistent cough, which often occurs at night. If the condition worsens, symptoms may include wheezing, tightness in the chest or even shortness of breath. In children with non-allergic asthma, exercise, colds and sinus infections also can aggravate these symptoms. A family history of asthma may predict your child’s likelihood of developing this condition.

Caused by an overactive immune system, allergies can affect children of all ages, just like asthma. During allergic reactions to substances like pollen, a child often will develop nasal congestion, runny nose and/or itchy eyes. These allergy-provoking substances—referred to as allergens—often include things such as dander, grass, pollen, mold or dust mites. Similar to asthma, a family history of allergies makes it more likely for your child to experience allergic reactions.Girl blowing dandelion

How Asthma and Allergies Interact

Asthma is classified as either “allergic asthma” or “non-allergic asthma.” While non-allergic asthma can occur independently of any allergens, allergic asthma is triggered by certain substances, as mentioned above. Common irritants also will worsen allergic asthma, such as smoking (cigarettes, marijuana or e-cigarettes), air pollution, air fresheners, cleaning agents and artificial fragrances.

Children who have seasonal allergies also may experience an influx of asthmatic symptoms during certain months. For instance, in spring there’s more pollen in the air, which can aggravate hay fever, eczema and, of course, asthma. If your child is experiencing coughing, wheezing and/or shortness of breath in conjunction with hay fever or skin irritation, then they likely have allergic asthma.

In either case, it’s vital to make an appointment with your pediatrician as soon as possible to help diagnose, treat and prevent further symptoms.

Treatment Options for Asthma

Treatment options are tailored to each child’s medical situation. During a consultation, your pediatrician will work with you to find the right medications for your child, whether that be daily inhaled corticosteroids, an emergency inhaler or something else. Depending on the source of their asthma, a visit to an allergist for allergy testing also may be recommended.

Even for a child with non-allergic asthma, your pediatrician may recommend more than medication. Irritants may need to be removed from your child’s environment, such as cigarette smoke or air freshener. Professional carpet cleaning or the removal of carpet altogether may help, as well as frequently changing sheets and pillow cases, or even buying a new mattress. Hypoallergenic air filters or humidifiers also may be recommended to help purify indoor air.

Fortunately, the elimination of irritants and use of appropriate treatment prescribed by your child’s doctor may prevent the worsening of symptoms, or nearly eliminate symptoms altogether. Diligence in care also might prevent a parent’s worst nightmare: having to take a trip to the emergency room when your child is struggling to breathe. Overall, whether they’re suffering from allergic or non-allergic asthma, no child should have to be held back by their condition.

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