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Atopic or allergic asthma is the most common type of asthma, most likely to be seen in people who have a family history of other conditions such as eczema, food allergies or hay fever. Around 90 per cent of children with asthma also have allergies, as do 50 per cent of adults with asthma.

What does ‘atopic’ mean?

An atopic condition is a condition that’s caused by an allergic reaction to a particular substance or substances. Atopic conditions include things like hay fever, eczema and food allergies. They often have a genetic link.

What is ‘allergic asthma’, or ‘atopic asthma’?

Atopic asthma is asthma that’s triggered by an allergic reaction to one or more substances. Your body reacts to these allergens because of an oversensitive immune system, which causes  the muscles around your airways to become inflamed and tighten. If this happens repeatedly over a long period of time, you might also start to produce a thick mucus which makes breathing more difficult.

The main symptoms include:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in your chest
  • Fast breathing

How can you tell the difference between an allergic reaction and asthma?

The main difference between a classic allergy attack and an asthma attack is where it happens in your body. In an allergic attack, your trigger substances cause you to produce substances called IgE (immunoglobulin E) antibodies, which then tell your body to produce more chemicals called leukotrienes and histamines. These chemicals trigger symptoms like sneezing, watery eyes, itching, headaches, and skin irritation - and also the classic wheezing of asthma.

Asthma is often triggered by the same IgE antibodies, but the reaction only happens in your lungs and airways. They can become inflamed, making you wheeze and cough. If you have a serious asthma attack, your airways can also go into spasm, which makes them narrower and harder to breathe through. More mucus is produced, limiting your air flow even more. As well as making it harder to breathe, you could have chest pains, and shortness of breath.

Who can get allergic asthma?

Nobody knows what causes allergic asthma, or why some people get it.

Although it can develop at any age, around half of people with asthma are diagnosed before the age of ten. It’s twice as common in boys as it is in girls. If you develop asthma as an adult, it’s less likely to be allergic asthma. It may be caused by chemical exposure in the workplace or a chest infection.

  • You’re more likely to develop allergic asthma if you have a family history of it, or if there are other conditions like eczema, hay fever or food allergies in your family.
  • If you have one of the other atopic conditions already, you’re even more likely to experience the symptoms of allergic asthma at some point in your life.
  • It’s thought that if you were born prematurely, were a low birth weight due to restricted development,or needed a ventilator when you were born, you might be at a greater risk of asthma in general.
  • If your mother smoked while she was pregnant with you, or smoked around you as a child, it can also increase your risk.

How can allergic asthma be treated?

Avoiding the allergic triggers, along with using medication, are the most effective ways to treat allergic asthma.

If you’re not sure what’s causing the reaction that leads to your asthma symptoms, the first place to look is in the home. It could be caused by something as simple as dust mites, mould or even pet dander (the tiny bits of skin shed by animals). Outside, pollen could be a culprit. If you notice the symptoms of your asthma getting worse at certain times of the year, it’s worth checking what pollen is in the air, and trying to avoid it if you can.

Sometimes chemicals irritate your airways. Cigarette smoke, fumes and even perfumes and air-fresheners can all cause a reaction.

Prevention and reliever inhalers are two common medicated ways to treat asthma. The two are often used together unless your allergic asthma symptoms are very mild, in which case a reliever inhaler might be all you need. It’s important to use preventative medication if it’s prescribed, as well as using the reliever inhalers when you have a reaction.

If you’re experiencing symptoms more than once a week, you should ask your doctor for advice as you might also need a steroid inhaler. If you’re experiencing persistent symptoms, you could also be given tablets along with more than one preventative inhaler.

There is still no cure for asthma. In very severe cases, a course of desensitising injections might help but this isn’t a widespread treatment.

How can allergies be treated?

Like asthma, there is still no cure for allergies, but there are medications that can help treat the symptoms. You can buy some of them over the counter from pharmacies, like antihistamines and decongestants. Other types of medication need to be prescribed by your doctor, such as combination drugs and steroids.

One treatment that is sometimes recommended for allergic asthma is a course of immunotherapy - injections that aim to increase your tolerance to the allergen that causes your symptoms. These are also sometimes used to treat hayfever, pet allergies, and wasp/bee stings if nothing else has worked.

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