Learn how air quality can affect allergies and asthma

A cough here and a sneeze there could mean many things depending upon the time of the year. For nearly 20 million adults in the U.S., seasonal allergies usually are to blame.

What Creates an Allergy?

In many cases, air quality can cause allergies.

Allergy symptoms appear after exposure to certain allergens, which are typically inhaled or ingested. Typical outdoor allergens include pollen from trees, grasses, weeds, or mold spores, as well as car engine emissions and ozone.

Dust and tobacco smoke affect indoor air quality. Both contribute to worsening allergy symptoms by irritating the lungs.

“Normally, people breathe in these substances without a problem,” says Nicholas Habib, MD, UPMC Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine. “When a person has allergies, their immune system acts as if the substance is harmful to the body. This causes symptoms.”

Anyone can develop allergies, but many people first experience seasonal allergies as children or young adults.

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Allergy Symptoms

Seasonal allergies, also known as “hay fever,” are lifelong, but symptoms can get better or worse over time. Symptoms may include:

  • Stuffy or runny nose.
  • Frequent sneezing.
  • Itchy or red eyes.
  • Sore throat.
  • Itchy throat or ears.
  • Trouble sleeping or waking up at night.

Treatment Options for Allergies

Minimizing the effects of seasonal allergies can range from avoiding allergen exposure to using over-the-counter allergy treatments. These may include:

  • Saltwater (or saline) nasal rinses.
  • Steroid nose sprays.
  • Antihistamine pills.
  • Antihistamine eye drops.
  • Decongestants.

Although nobody wants to stay inside on a spring day, symptoms increase at specific times of the year. Limiting exposure to outdoor allergens is the best course of action at those times.

“I suggest people start taking allergy medication before the time of the year when symptoms are more pronounced,” Dr. Habib says. “Wear a mask outside, keep car and windows closed, use the air conditioner instead, and shower before bed to rinse pollen off your skin and hair.”

Preventing Poor Indoor Air Quality

Poor air quality doesn’t only exist outside. Proper ventilation inside the home or office is one way to minimize poor air quality.

Whether allergies are a problem or not, the following steps can help people reduce contact with indoor allergens:

  • Using air cleaners and filters that are CERTIFIED asthma and allergy friendly® filters. These can filter nearly 98% of allergen particles.
  • Routinely cleaning and washing bedding and other soft surfaces.
  • Protecting mattresses, pillows, and furniture with allergen-resistant covers to control dust mites.
  • Vacuuming flooring and window treatments twice a week. Consider CERTIFIED asthma and allergy friendly® vacuums proven to control the release of allergens back into the air.
  • Cleaning any dust, pollen, or mold off household surfaces.
  • Preventing pet dander by keeping pets clean and out of the bedroom.

Air Quality and Asthma

Asthma affects about 1 in 10 children and 1 in 20 adults. The condition is the leading chronic disease in children and is more common in adult women. If asthma symptoms worsen during certain times of the year, seasonal asthma could be to blame.

Uncontrolled asthma can lead to permanent damage to the airways. The condition causes inflammation in the airways, making it more difficult to get air in and out of the lungs. As a result, people experience wheezing and breathlessness.

“Managing seasonal asthma means being proactive in controlling your environment,” Dr. Habib says. “Patients also need to follow their doctor’s long-term care plan for asthma even when asymptomatic.”

According to the American Lung Association, people who are exposed to allergens, certain irritants, or an early childhood viral infection, or who have a compromised immune system have been linked to developing asthma. For adults, exposure to certain chemicals and dusts can play a significant role in onset.

Common asthma triggers and causes include:

  • Air pollution.
  • Tobacco use.
  • Allergens such as pollens, mold, pet dander, and dust mites.
  • Infections like sinusitis, colds, and the flu.
  • Cold air or changes in weather.
  • Exercise.

Asthma symptoms

Seasonal asthma symptoms don’t affect everyone the same. The cold air in late fall or winter may trigger airways into spasms, which triggers coughing, shortness of breath, or wheezing. In the spring and warmer months, however, the high pollen count is a major factor in seasonal allergies.

Symptoms may range from mild to severe and include:

  • Pain or tightness in the chest.
  • Coughing or wheezing, especially if triggered by a virus.
  • Shortness of breath, sometimes causing sleep disruptions.

Asthma treatment

Treating asthma is broken down into two therapeutic approaches:

  • Relief therapy: This is used to alleviate the symptoms of an asthma attack, typically using an inhaler. Patients can find relief within minutes of an attack.
  • Preventive therapy: Corticosteroid inhalers are the prescribed regimen for helping patients prevent damage to the lungs and keep an asthma attack from happening. These are used daily.

Treatment plans are tailored to each patient according to their diagnosis. Sometimes adjustments need to be made. Any new or worsening symptoms should be discussed between the patient and provider.

When to See a Specialist for Allergies and Asthma

Patients whose allergy symptoms are severe or don’t improve after initial therapeutic attempts should be referred to an allergy specialist for a more conclusive evaluation, Dr. Habib says.

“Seeing a pulmonary specialist is useful for patients with associated asthma, for example,” Dr. Habib says. “For those patients with recurrent episodes of sinusitis or otitis media, an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor) may be helpful in managing their condition.”

If allergies or asthma interfere with daily life, don’t ignore the symptoms. Identify the triggers and seek the appropriate care to breathe easier in the short and long-term.

Although asthma and allergies are not curable, they can be managed. UPMC’s pulmonary experts provide evaluation and treatment for patients suffering from respiratory illnesses, difficulty breathing, and more. To find care near you, visit our website.

About Pulmonology

For people with breathing problems, allergies, and other lung conditions or diseases, UPMC’s pulmonary experts can help. Our Comprehensive Lung Center provides cutting-edge diagnosis and treatment for diseases of the respiratory and pulmonary systems, whether the condition is acute or chronic. We also operate specialty centers for cystic fibrosis, asthma, COPD and emphysema, pulmonary hypertension, lung transplants, interstitial lung diseases, and sleep disorders. Find an expert near you.