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Respiratory Symptoms and Asthma

Updated on January 23, 2018

The respiratory system is the first line of defense against airborne invaders. The mucous cells that line the nose, throat, and lungs work to wash these foreign substances out of the body. Allergic individuals, however, have mucous membrane cells that are hypersensitive. When contacted by a foreign substance or allergen, their cells mount an attack, overproduce mucous and become inflamed.

The result is the many unpleasant symptoms of an allergy attack: sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion, swelling of the lips, itchy and swollen throat, coughing and difficulty breathing. Allergic reactions that affect the respiratory system are most commonly caused by airborne particles or food allergies. Allergic reactions to airborne pollens, dust, animal dander, molds, as well as foods can lead to sinus obstruction and subsequent sinus infections. Sinus headaches can also develop due to the pressure from swollen sinus membranes.

The Allergy-Asthma Connection

For people who have asthma, the allergic reaction can also trigger asthma symptoms or an attack. All people who have allergies do not have asthma. Asthma is not contagious but can resemble other respiratory problems such as bronchitis, respiratory infections, and emphysema. The allergens most commonly related to asthma symptoms include molds, grass pollens, tree pollens, weed pollens, house dust, dust mites, cockroaches, most furry and feathery pets, foods and food additives.


Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the lower airways (lungs), which often is unrecognized and under-diagnosed. A very common disease in people of all ages, it includes narrowing and constriction of the bronchial tubes, swelling of the bronchial tube lining, and increased mucus secretion that can block the airways and interfere with normal breathing. Inflammation of lung tissue can be present when there are no obvious symptoms.

Asthma attacks can be frightening. There are ways to control the disease and reduce both frequency and severity of asthma attacks. Understanding the triggers and how to avoid them, maintaining good health habits including those related to diet and exercise, and following the treatment plan prescribed by the allergist are keys to successful management of this chronic condition.

Symptoms of Asthma

  • Twitchy feeling in throat and airways
  • Coughing
  • A feeling of tightness in the chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing, a raspy whistling sound that occurs with each breath

Symptoms of an Asthma Attack

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Rapid breathing due to difficulty getting enough oxygen
  • Coughing up mucus
  • Gasping voice
  • Pale anxious face
  • Cold sweat on the face
  • Bluish nails and lips

Triggers of asthma attacks can also include tobacco smoke, exercise, dramatic weather changes, medications, colds and respiratory infections, stress, crying, laughing and yelling. For some people, airway irritants, such as aerosol sprays, perfumes, odors, smoke from cooking, wood burning stoves or charcoal grills are also problematic.

Exercise-Induced Asthma (EIA)

Exercise-induced asthma occurs in children and young adults during or immediately following intense exercise in cold, dry air. The symptoms of EIA (coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath) are similar to those of allergic asthma, but may they occur despite no other known allergies. While people with allergic asthma may develop symptoms with exercise, it is only one of several triggers. Those with EIA develop symptoms only with exercise.

Gastro-esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

GERD is a condition whereby stomach acid routinely backflows into the esophagus, the long tube through which food travels from the mouth to the stomach. Under normal conditions, acid produced in the stomach is blocked from contact with the esophagus. For people with GERD, however, the normal barrier system is not working effectively. Strong acid entering the esophagus causes what we commonly refer to as "heartburn", or a sharp pain in the chest. At times, GERD symptoms mimic those of a heart attack, including radiating pain into the arm.

In addition to the unpleasant digestive tract symptoms of GERD, people with asthma may react to acid in the airways with asthma symptoms of coughing and wheezing. Conversely, there is also suspicion that some people with GERD may be mistakenly diagnosed with asthma, since acid from the stomach traveling through the esophagus can be misdirected to the trachea and, thus, gain enter into the lungs. Lung irritation would result, again, in symptoms of coughing and wheezing.

GERD is typically a condition which develops in middle or late adulthood. It is more prevalent in very overweight individuals, although not limited to them. Effective treatments for GERD include medication, weight control, meal composition and timing adjustments, and medical procedures to correct esophageal sphincter incompetence. Consult your physician if you suspect GERD is a problem for you, whether you have asthma or not.


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    • cecileportilla profile image

      Cecile Portilla 4 years ago from West Orange, New Jersey

      Nice informational hub. Many people are unaware of the link between GERD and asthma. Voted up.