HealthyLifeģ Students' Self-Care Guide

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 Section IĖCommon Health Problems Caution

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Allergies & Asthma

ďTreat your symptoms before they get out of control. Donít feel too proud to get treatment. Know your limits! Remember to follow all of your doctorís instructions and donít be afraid to ask questions.Ē

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 Ė 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


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


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


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


Repeated ear and sinus infections

For a Severe Allergic Reaction

bullet Shortness of breath. A hard time breathing or swallowing. Wheezing.
bullet Severe swelling all over or of the face, lips, tongue, and/or throat
bullet Pale or bluish lips, skin, and/or fingernails
bullet Cool, moist skin or sudden onset of pale skin and sweating
bullet Feeling dizzy, weak, and/or numb. Fainting. Decreasing level of awareness.

For Asthma

bullet A cough lasts more than a week. Coughing may be the only symptom. It may occur during the night or after exercising.
bullet Wheezing
bullet Prolonged shortness of breath. Breathing gets harder and may hurt. It is harder to breathe out than in.
bullet Chest tightness or pain

Causes & Risk Factors

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

For Allergies

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

bullet Breathing an allergen (e.g., pollen, dust, mold, dander, etc.) or an irritant (e.g., tobacco smoke, air pollution, fumes, perfumes, etc.)
bullet Respiratory infections (colds, flu, bronchitis, sinus infections)
bullet Sulfites (additives in wine and some foods)
bullet Cold air. Temperature and humidity changes.
bullet Exercise, especially outdoors in cold air
bullet Some medicines, such as aspirin
bullet Strong feelings, including laughing and crying
bullet 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., EpiPen), can be prescribed to use for a severe reaction before emergency care.

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.

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


Questions to Ask

Do any of these signs occur?
  • Signs of a severe allergic reaction listed above
  • Chest pain or tightening
  • Seizure
  • Cough that doesnít let up and a hard time breathing
Yes. Get Immediate Care.


Do any of these signs occur?
  • Blue lips or fingernails
  • Fainting or dizziness
  • You canít say 4 or 5 words between breaths or eat or sleep due to shortness of breath.
  • Wheezing and you are taking corticosteroid medicine
  • Wheezing doesnít stop after your prescribed treatment.
  • A fever with heavy breathing
  • Your peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) is below 60% of your personal best number.
Yes. Get Immediate Care.


Do any of these signs occur?
  • Flushing, redness all over the body or severe hives
  • Hoarseness
  • Anxiety. Trembling.
  • Enlarged pupils
  • A severe reaction occurred in the past after exposure to a like substance.
Yes. Get Immediate Care.


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


With asthma, do you have any of these problems?
  • An asthma attack does not respond to self-care or prescribed medicine.
  • Asthma attacks are coming more often and/or are getting worse.
  • You use your bronchodilator more than 2 times a week.
  • A cough keeps you awake at night.
  • Signs of an infection, such as a fever, and/or cough with mucus that is green, yellow, or bloody-colored
Yes. See Provider.



For a Severe Allergic Reaction

bullet Take prescribed medicine, such as EpiPen, as advised. Then get emergency care!
bullet Wear a medical ID alert tag for things that cause a severe allergic reaction.
bullet Avoid things you are allergic to.

For Other Allergic Reactions

bullet 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.}
bullet Donít use hot water for baths, showers, or to wash rash areas.
bullet 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.
bullet Avoid things you are allergic to.

For Asthma

bullet Donít smoke or let others smoke in your home. Stay away from smoke and air pollution.
bullet Drink lots of liquids (2 to 3 quarts a day).
bullet 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.
bullet Stop exercising if you start to wheeze.
bullet Avoid your asthma triggers.
bullet Try to keep your bedroom allergen free.
  • Sleep with no pillow or the kind your doctor suggests. Use a plastic or ďallergen-freeĒ cover on your mattress and pillow (if you use one). Wash mattress pads in hot water every week.
  • Use throw rugs, not carpeting. Donít use drapes.
  • If you can, use a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Vacuum and dust often. Wear a dust filter mask when you do.
  • Donít use perfumes
  • Put an electronic air filter on your furnace or use portable air purifiers. Change and/or wash furnace and air conditioner filters regularly. If you use a portable humidifier or vaporizer, use distilled (not tap) water.
bullet Donít consume things with sulfites, such as wine and some shellfish.
bullet Use your peak flow meter, as advised, to monitor your asthma.
bullet Sit up during an asthma attack.
bullet Keep your asthma rescue medicine handy. Take it as prescribed.
bullet Use acetaminophen, not aspirin.

For Information, Contact:

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
800.7.ASTHMA (727.8462)

©2005, 6th edition. American Institute for Preventive Medicine All rights reserved.
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December 08, 2005