Allergies or Asthma – What’s the Difference?

Healthy Living

March 12, 2018

Nature comes alive in spring, bringing with it beautiful greenery and a not-so-beautiful blanket of pollen that covers everything in sight. The same allergens that get released into the air during spring’s reawakening trigger symptoms like runny noses, watery eyes and itchy throats. If you have asthma, then you might also recognize these symptoms. Allergies and asthma share the same triggers, but not everyone suffers from both (or either). How can you tell if your runny nose is just a hallmark of spring or something else? Here’s how to spot the difference.


For starters, you should know that those unpleasant springtime symptoms are actually your immune system’s response to allergen triggers. Your body releases antibodies to fight intruders, which results in the excess drainage. Allergens are always around us, but there are higher counts of things like pollen in the spring. Other triggers for you might include:

  • Dust
  • Mold
  • Pet dander
  • Insects and dust mites

Allergies present with a runny nose, sinus drainage, watery eyes and sneezing. For most people, allergies tend to affect the nose, throat and sinuses more than other areas. If your body goes into overdrive or you’re more susceptible to certain stimuli, you might also experience skin hives or eczema. Note that we’re talking about seasonal allergies, which show up in spring and fall for most people and are directly caused by seasonal triggers.


Seasonal allergies can be literally and figuratively draining, but they usually aren’t life-threatening. By contrast, asthma can be a more serious and more difficult to control medical condition because it occurs in the upper bronchial passages and the lungs. Often triggered by similar stimuli as allergies, asthma may also be brought on by strenuous exercise or even stress. Asthma causes your airways to narrow and produce more mucus, making it harder to breathe.

Asthma affects up to 334 million people each year worldwide and accounts for nearly one percent of all deaths across the globe. Although people tend to think of asthma as a childhood disease, most asthma-related deaths occur in elderly people who are weakened by other conditions. There’s hope, though, because new asthma medicines have been created recently, and more people are aware of the risk.

Overlap Between Allergies and Asthma

Since they’re often caused by the same allergens, like dust, mold and pet dander, allergies and asthma can be triggered in the same way. If you have allergies that are left untreated, they can develop into asthma, so it’s important to check in with your doctor during allergy season, especially if over-the-counter meds don’t work for your symptoms. Antihistamines are an effective treatment for allergies as is taking steps to cut down on the allergens in your home. Special air filters and air purifiers exist specifically to minimize allergens.

Your doctor can order an allergy test to determine any substances that cause you to experience allergic reactions. In the case of asthma, it’s even more vital to avoid these triggers. Antihistamines may delay or mitigate the symptoms, and asthma can also be treated with anti-inflammatory medicine and bronchodilators to open airways.

How to Identify Asthma

Not everyone experiences asthma in its severe form. Some people have a milder response that doesn’t interfere with their everyday lives. But because there’s no cure for asthma, it’s important to have your symptoms monitored regularly by your doctor if you suffer from it. Symptoms will be much worse when you have any kind of respiratory virus like a cold or the flu. In general, here are some indicators that you might have asthma:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain or tightness in the chest
  • A wheezing sound when breathing out
  • Severe cold or flu symptoms
  • Trouble sleeping due to breathing difficulty, wheezing or coughing 

Untreated asthma can lead to a lot of problems, so it’s imperative that you see a doctor about the symptoms you’re experiencing so you can get a proper diagnosis. If you are uninsured and are apprehensive about paying for diagnosis tests out-of-pocket, you should check out a short term health plan in the interim until the 2019 Open Enrollment Period starts back up on November 1, 2018.

How to Breathe Easier

One way to minimize the suffering of allergies or asthma is to get your flu shot every season. If you’re over 65, the CDC also recommends a pneumonia vaccine. Any upper respiratory illness you get will be worsened by allergies and may trigger an asthma attack. This is when your airways become so constricted that you can’t breathe in enough air to talk, the muscles of your neck and back tighten, and there’s pain or pressure in your chest.

Identifying and avoiding allergens is another proactive way to lessen or prevent symptoms. You can’t always avoid your triggers, especially if you like being outside, but you can plan ahead to mitigate the effects. Take any medicine as prescribed, and take frequent breaks if possible. If you have asthma, always carry an inhaler or other emergency medication with you.

Finally, allergy and asthma symptoms should be continually monitored by you and your doctor. Being alert to signs of increased breathing problems and making regular visits to the doctor are crucial steps that can lessen the frequency and severity of your symptoms.