According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, approximately 60 million Americans suffer from asthma and allergies, which is more than diabetes, cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease combined. Despite their large prevalence, these two diseases are often overlooked in terms of cost to the nation's health, society and economy.
Patrick Breysse, PhD, director of the Center for Childhood Asthma at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that “asthma is one of the most common chronic diseases of childhood. The burden of childhood asthma is profound for the patient as well as their families and for society. Societal impacts include loss of work time for caregivers, loss of school days, and decreased quality of life. These impacts are in addition to the healthcare costs of providing routine care, emergency department visits, and hospitalizations.”
Allergies are abnormal immune reactions to typically harmless, everyday substances, known as allergens. The immune system treats these allergens as invaders and produces specific proteins called antibodies. This sets off a series of reactions that cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction, including sneezing, itching, a runny nose, and watery eyes. Common allergens include pollen, mold, cigarette smoke, animal dander (from animals with fur), dust mites, medications, foods, insect stings, and cockroach droppings.
Many of these common allergens are also triggers for asthma in allergic individuals. Inhalation of allergens by a sensitized (i.e., allergic) asthmatic can result in inflammation of the lungs and airways, leading to breathlessness, chest tightness, wheezing, and coughing. Other irritants in the environment (e.g., air pollution, secondhand smoke) can also result in airway inflammation and trigger asthma symptoms.
While there are currently no cures for allergies and asthma, both diseases can be managed with appropriate prevention and treatment measures.
An individualized Asthma Management Action Plan should be developed in consultation with a knowledgeable healthcare provider.
- Work to eliminate secondhand smoke from your environment, whether it be the home, office, school, or car. Family and friends should avoid smoking around a person with asthma. When out in the public, avoid smoky environments as much as possible.
- If sensitive to air pollution or allergic to pollen, utilize air quality forecasts to plan outdoor activities for days with low air pollution or pollen counts.
- The growth of mold can be prevented be controlling the moisture level in the air. Keep the humidity level between 30-60 percent (often using an air conditioner or dehumidifier), run a fan or open the window when taking a shower, and clean up water leaks immediately.
- The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends not having pets with fur or hair inside the home if a family member is sensitive or allergic. If this is not possible, be sure to keep the pets out of the bedroom at all times. Also eliminate cloth-covered carpets and furniture, or at least keep pets off of these surfaces.
- In the bedroom, experts recommend using “dust-proof” covers for mattresses and pillows to minimize dust mite allergen exposure while sleeping. Stuffed animals, and down-filled comforters and pillows on the bed should also be avoided. Bedding should be washed frequently. Carpets in bedrooms should be avoided.
- In order to keep cockroaches and other pests out of the home, store all food (including pet food) in tightly closed containers; fix leaks and cracks in sinks, toilets, windows, and doors throughout the home; always clean up spills and crumbs immediately; keep water trays under plants, radiators, and the refrigerator and, if needed, contact pest control if pests are spotted.
- Portable air cleaners have been shown to reduce asthma symptoms.
For more information on allergies, asthma, and allergens, visit http://healthfinder.gov/prevention/ViewTopic.aspx?topicID=86&cnt=1&areaID=0, http://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/conditions/asthma/allergens.cfm, http://www.aafa.org, or http://www.cdc.gov/asthma.Every Monday, the Johns Hopkins Healthy Monday Project, part of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, offers tips for preventing disease and injury, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Check back each week for new tips or visit our archive.