With Allergy Awareness Week kicking off today, we thought it was worth looking at the links between allergies and asthma. Many people assume that asthma itself is an allergic condition but, despite similarities in symptoms, this isn't true. Read on for a few of the facts and figures that illustrate the differences between the two.
An allergy is unique to the person who has it – that's not to say that no one else can be allergic to the same material or chemical, rather it means that the severity and frequency of the allergy varies. An allergic reaction occurs when a person's immune system responds to a certain chemical in a way that is in excess of the reaction needed – for example the airways will begin to close or skin can become red and itchy. The severity of the reaction is also dependent on the individual experiencing it – two people who are allergic to cats will develop different symptoms in response to exposure.
Asthma, on the other hand, is a reactionary condition that is focused entirely on a person's ability to breath. In the event that a person comes into contact with an asthma 'trigger' their immune system reacts, leading to a reduced ability to breath, which can become an 'asthma attack'.
Asthma is common in the UK and is in fact rising in a large number of western countries. Partly the result of more widespread diagnoses and treatment, asthma medication such as inhalers has also become more common and visible in everyday life.
Perhaps the main reason for the confusion surrounding the definition of asthma as an allergy lies in the similarity in causation and symptomatic bodily responses. It is interesting to consider certain facts about asthma; statistics do show that a large number of people who have asthma also have at least one allergy as well, with hay fever being one of the most common.
It's also interesting to see that the number of those with both asthma and an allergy is rising; on average in the UK 50% of all people with asthma have an allergy, whilst a staggering 90% of children with asthma also have an allergy. Although many have people have put forward theories about why this might be, there are, as yet, no definitive conclusions available. In any case, though, it is understandable that people would think that the two were related or a part of the same medical condition.
Perhaps one of the main differences that separate asthma and allergies is treatment; in most cases an allergic reaction will be treated with a particular medication, such as steroids or antihistamines, which varies from allergy to allergy. Asthma, on the other hand, has its own category of medications and delivery methods. Inhalers, for example, are a common sight in schools and workplaces, and these days very few people would be confused if they saw a person using one.