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Ask the Doc: What you need to know about asthma and allergies

Published April 2023 | In Spring 2023

In 1984, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America declared May National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month. Otolaryngologists V. Richard Bowen, M.D., and Loren Jones, M.D., answer some common questions about asthma and allergies.

Ask the Doc: What you need to know about asthma and allergies Media

What is asthma?

Loren Jones, M.D.: Asthma is an inflammatory disease in the lungs that impacts the small airways or bronchioles. Inflammation of these airways causes them to narrow. It can also cause spasms of smooth muscle in the walls of these airways, which squeezes them and narrows them further. This can cause acute asthma attack symptoms like shortness of breath, cough and wheezing.

What are allergies?

V. Richard Bowen, M.D.: In people with allergies, the immune system identifies allergens — like pollen or certain foods — as dangerous, even though they’re not actually harmful. The result is inflammation of the skin, the sinuses, airways or digestive system. For some people this leads to minor irritation, but for others it can cause life-threatening responses.

Loren Jones, M.D. is an Otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat physician) at Monument Health in Spearfish with more than 13 years of experience. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Dr. Jones diagnoses and treats the full spectrum of ENT conditions, specializing in minimally invasive and office-based sinusitis treatments.

How common are asthma and allergies?

Bowen: They are fairly common. Allergic rhinitis, or inflammation of the nose, affects 10 to 30 percent of the population. Some estimates suggest that asthma affects 300 million people worldwide. Roughly 80 percent of asthmatics also suffer from allergies.

Can allergies affect asthma?

Jones: Allergies can certainly affect asthmatics. The linings of the nose, throat, sinuses and lungs are all the same type of mucus membrane tissue and are largely susceptible to similar problems. In the same way that allergens can trigger the immune system to produce inflamed nasal tissues, they can also affect the airways of the lungs. In fact, some medications are used to treat both allergies and asthma.

Do men and women have different rates of asthma?

Bowen: Childhood asthma is more common in boys than girls — by a 3-2 ratio. However, this changes as we age: there are more women than men with asthma as adults, with eight women with asthma for every two men.

V. Richard Bowen, M.D. is an Otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat physician) at Monument Health in Rapid City with more than 20 years of experience. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, a Fellow of the American Academy of Otolaryngic Allergy (AAOA) and a Diplomat of the American Academy of Aesthetic Medicine.

What is the most common type of allergy?

Jones: The most common type of allergy is pollen. This can be from trees, weeds and grasses. Allergic reactions to pollen are often referred to as hay fever. Other common triggers include pet dander, molds, dust mites and cockroaches — fortunately we don’t have to deal with cockroaches much in our area. The most common food allergies depend upon age. In children, milk, eggs and peanuts are the most common. In adults, the most common food allergen is shellfish.

Is there anything about western South Dakota that makes allergies and asthma more of a concern?

Bowen: The most problematic allergens, like pollen, are those that travel the furthest in the wind. That means individuals with allergies or asthma may have a problem in windy areas like western South Dakota.

Can allergies develop at any age?

Bowen: Allergies may develop at any age, but it’s most likely through the teens and early 20s. Infant allergies are usually food related or manifest in skin conditions such as eczema. When allergies first occur later in life, it is often because a person is exposed to allergens when their immune system function is compromised — such as when they’re sick or pregnant — or when they are exposed to new allergens.

Are people more likely to have multiple allergies or just one?

Jones: Yes, if you have one allergy, it is more likely you will have others. It’s unusual to test positive to only one allergen, although not unheard of. Since allergies are a function of a misguided immune response, the fact you have one allergy indicates that the immune system may be more likely to develop allergies to other things.

Do allergies ever go away?

Bowen: The good news is, yes, the older we get the less severe allergy symptoms become. Unfortunately, this may not occur until after age 60 for many people. However, for most folks, allergies greatly improve with test-specific allergy shots, or an under-the-tongue therapy. We recommend four to five years of therapy, that may give eight to 10 years — or more — of symptom relief.

Monument Health now provides Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) services in Rapid City in addition to ENT services in Spearfish. To learn more, visit www.monument.health/ent.

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