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You’ve got a child who’s congested, wheezy, and has running eyes. What’s the cause? Distinguishing between allergies and asthma can be difficult, since both share similar symptoms.
Asthma is a chronic lung disease that inflames and narrows breathing airways. Allergies can be tied to seasonal changes (often associated with pollen) that cause itchiness, sneezing, and congestion in the head and chest.
With 75 to 85 percent of children diagnosed with asthma also having some type of allergy, recognizing which disorder is causing the symptoms can be problematic. Use these tips to help interpret your child’s symptoms and assist your pediatrician or allergist in making a correct diagnosis.
Coughing • Dr. Betty Mirro of East Memphis Allergy and Asthma says differentiating between causes of coughing can be difficult, even for a physician. However, coughing accompanied with tightness in the chest, wheezing, or breathlessness may suggest asthma. Frequent coughing at night, after exercise, during high emotions (crying or anger), or when exposed to allergens and irritants like smoke, is also common with asthma.
People with allergies may have a chronic cough, often caused by postnasal drip or dry throat. The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology says frequent coughing or sneezing may also indicate food allergies and is often accompanied with other symptoms such as rash, hives, stomach upset, or nausea after ingesting certain foods.
Shortness of breath/wheezing • Shortness of breath and wheezing are the most recognized symptoms of asthma. However, Mirro adds that even in the absence of an asthma diagnosis, large allergen exposures can still cause wheezing and shortness of breath in individuals with allergies. In an anaphylactic, or severe allergic reaction, Mirro reminds parents that rashes, hives, itchy, or swollen mouth and throat are also often present and treatment should not be delayed as symptoms may worsen very quickly.
Other allergy symptoms • Clear, watery, nasal discharge is almost always a tell-tale sign of allergies. Itchy, watery eyes, chronic stuffy ears, nasal congestion, itchy mouth and throat, eczema, headache, excessive fatigue, and itchy nose or nose rubbing are other common allergy symptoms to watch for.
Other asthma symptoms • The American Academy of Pediatrics warns parents that recurrent bronchitis, pneumonia, chronic coughing, lingering chest colds, or frequent lower respiratory infections are often warning signs of asthma and should be discussed with your pediatrician.
Make Note of Symptoms • Accurate diagnosis and treatment are paramount to a child’s health. Left untreated, symptoms such as ear infections, chronic bronchitis, and nasal congestion can result in permanent hearing loss or scarred lungs. To help your pediatrician make a correct diagnosis, take good notes including when and where symptoms occur, frequency of symptoms, environment, food exposure, and time of day/season these symptoms appear or disappear.
See a specialist • “Children should be assessed by a specialist when symptoms require frequent treatment, especially if that treatment has not been successful,” advises Mirro. “I think that any child who has asthma that requires maintenance medications should be evaluated for allergies and to optimize asthma management.” Evaluating a child for allergies, with or without a diagnosis of asthma, allows parents to make informed decisions on environmental controls and use of medications, thereby granting their child a quality of life with few, if any, hindrances.