May is Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month
It’s springtime. The birds are singing, and the flowers are blooming. Which also brings more pollen and other allergens. May is National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month. About 25 million people in the U.S. have asthma, and 24 million have hay fever or nasal allergies. While there is no cure for asthma and allergies, there are tips to help manage these conditions to prevent severe episodes.
Asthma is a chronic disease that causes airways to become swollen and inflamed, making it hard to breathe. Common symptoms include coughing, wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe out), shortness of breath, and chest tightness. Asthma can lead to a medical emergency, so it’s important to know the signs of severe asthma episodes and seek medical care immediately. Asthma symptoms often follow a pattern: they can come and go over time, they typically get worse with viral infections, they’re typically worse at night or in the morning, and they can be triggered.
Asthma triggers are things you are sensitive to that cause airway inflammation. This leads to swelling, mucus production, and narrowing of your airways. Common triggers include pollen, air pollution (including vog), animal allergens, fragrances, extreme weather changes, smoke, mold, dust mites, cockroaches, stress, and exercise. Each person can have different triggers so it’s important, if you have asthma, to know your triggers so you can reduce exposure.
Asthma symptoms can be managed with an Asthma Action Plan (or Emergency Action Plan in schools), including appropriate medication, self-management, and limiting exposure to triggers. You and your doctor together will come up with a treatment plan, including medications and when to take them, such as short-acting bronchodilators or “rescue inhalers.” All people with asthma should have their own Action Plan, including keiki. A plan is only effective if shared, so provide copies to your school, coaches, family members, and caregivers.
As part of your Action Plan, it’s important to know how to reduce and remove exposure to triggers. Many triggers can be in your home, so keeping your home clean is important to minimize asthma episodes. Household triggers to focus on include mold, dust mites, cockroaches and their droppings, and secondhand smoke and vape. Mold can grow anywhere, especially in damp places like bathrooms, kitchens, and around leaks, or on clothes and carpet. Clean damp areas regularly and make sure clothes, swimsuits, and towels are dry to reduce mold growth. Dust mites live in fabric, prefer warm and humid places, and feed on skin flakes. Reduce exposure by washing sheets weekly in hot water, keep stuffed animals off the bed, and vacuum with a HEPA filter weekly. To reduce cockroaches and their droppings, remove unnecessary water and food sources and vacuum areas that might attract cockroaches often. Cleaning these areas may release allergens, so wear a mask while cleaning to prevent exposure. Finally, if you smoke or vape, please think about quitting (call Hawaii Tobacco Quitline at 800-QUIT-NOW). Further, ask people to not smoke or vape around you as secondhand smoke and vape clouds can trigger asthma episodes.
Now a bit about allergies. Allergies occur when the body’s immune system thinks a substance is harmful and overreacts to it, called an allergic reaction. There are many types of substances we can be allergic to, including drugs, food, insects, latex, mold, pets, and pollen.
Symptoms depend on the type of allergen and can include watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, rash, or hives. More severe symptoms include trouble breathing, swelling and itching in your mouth or throat, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. These potentially life-threatening reactions are called anaphylaxis.
Allergy treatment depends on your medical history and severity of symptoms. Three general strategies include avoidance of allergens, medications, and/or immunotherapy, which trains your immune system not to overreact. The best way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid your allergens. This can be challenging though, especially if your allergens are bees or wasps. If your allergic reactions may be life-threatening, it’s important to always carry medication with you as it is critical to treat anaphylaxis and seek medical care immediately.
With awareness and a management plan, both asthma and allergies can be managed. For more information and to download free resources, visit ControlAsthma.Hawaii.gov.
* Kristin Mills is a public health educator with the state Department of Health’s Maui District Health Office. No Ka ‘Oi Health is published on the fourth Thursday of every month.