Does an Allergy Cause You to Be Short of Breath?

Woman with allergy over flowers
A woman in a field of flowers sneezing. (Image: macniak/iStock/Getty Images)

Shortness of breath is a common symptom of asthma, but in some cases, allergies can cause asthma-like symptoms. Allergic rhinitis, hay fever and the body’s response to exercise can all result in shortness of breath. If you’re unsure what is causing the symptom, consult with an allergist and keep a journal of your surroundings when the symptoms occur.

Identification

Shortly after inhaling an allergen, a runny nose and frequent sneeze is apparent. Your nose, throat, mouth, eyes and sometimes your skin is itchy. Your eyes begin to tear and it feels like sand is in your eyes. As the symptoms progress, your nose gets stuffy and you start coughing, which both cause shortness of breath, especially during physical exertion. Allergies can trigger asthma symptoms, especially during physical activity. Exercise-induced asthma causes shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and chest tightness shortly after you begin exercising and these symptoms are worse if you have allergies to a substance in the environment.

Cause

Allergies are caused by your immune system mistaking a substance as harmful and releasing histamines to destroy the substance. The substance being attacked is called an allergen. Allergic rhinitis is a type of allergies you have if you’re sensitive to airborne allergens, such as dust, dander or pollen. Hay fever is a common type of allergic rhinitis that results from an allergic reaction to pollen. Hot summer days result in high pollen count, so if you exercise outdoors during these days, shortness of breath is likely to occur. If you have exercise-induced asthma, high pollen levels also trigger shortness of breath during physical activity. An allergic reaction directly to exercising that results in anaphylaxis makes it difficult to catch your breath. Medications, insect bites and food allergies can also cause shortness of breath.

Treatment

The treatment plan depends on if you have allergies in combination with asthma or only allergies. Allergies are often treated with antihistamines, decongestants, steroids and immunotherapy injections. If you are having a severe allergic reaction that’s making it difficult to breathe, you need an injection of epinephrine to open your airways. This injection can be given at your local emergency room or your doctor may prescribe an auto-injector of epinephrine for such an emergency. If you have asthma triggered by physical exertion that’s made worse by allergies, a quick-relief inhaler can be taken shortly before exercising and open your airways for several hours. You need to take allergy medications in combination with your inhaler. For chronic asthma, leukotriene modifiers or inhaled steroids are commonly prescribed.

Prevention

Avoiding the allergens that cause your shortness of breath is the best way to prevent symptoms, but this is not always possible. It's important that you take your medications exactly as prescribed. Avoid physical activity outdoors if pollen or air pollution is high. Keep your house clean by dusting and vacuuming frequently, as well as keeping the environment dry so mold does not grow.

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