Allergic reactions can cause difficulty breathing, leading to shortness of breath. In this article, we'll explore this symptom in-depth by explaining how it works, its causes, and how to best get relief.
What Causes Shortness of Breath?
While people use the term 'shortness of breath' to describe any difficulty breathing, it has a medical name. Dyspnea is defined as a subjective experience of breathing discomfort. It may be caused by various medical conditions, but always involves difficulty inhaling and exhaling air.
Below is a breakdown of some of the most notable causes of shortness of breath and how they occur.
A common cause for respiratory symptoms - and the focus of this article - are allergies. Allergies, also called allergic rhinitis and hay fever, are often to blame for shortness of breath. Allergens, such as pollen or dust mites, irritate the airways and cause swelling. This reduces the amount of air that can enter and exit your lungs, leading to decreased oxygen levels. As a result, you may experience difficulty breathing and a feeling of tightness in the chest.
Another common cause of shortness of breath is asthma. Triggered by a variety of environmental factors, asthma is a chronic lung condition that causes inflammation in the airways. This makes breathing difficult and can lead to other symptoms such as wheezing and chest tightness.
Poor Physical Health or Obesity
Poor physical health can also lead to shortness of breath. Obesity and inactive lifestyles cause excess fat to build up around the lungs, making it difficult for them to expand and contract properly. This leads to a condition called obesity hypoventilation syndrome which is characterized by low levels of oxygen in the blood.
When temperatures drop or rise to extreme levels, it can lead to shortness of breath. Cold air reduces the amount of oxygen in the air, while heat increases humidity and decreases oxygen intake. Both cases can cause difficulty breathing, as inhaling and exhaling become harder tasks.
Shortness of breath can also be a symptom of heart disease. As the heart's ability to pump blood decreases, it also reduces the amount of oxygen-rich blood that can flow around the body. This is why people with heart failure may feel short of breath after exertion or when lying down.
What Does Shortness of Breath From Allergies Feel Like?
Shortness of breath itself will pretty much always feel the same. There’s consistent chest pressure and you’ll have difficulty breathing. But when it occurs due to allergies, you may notice some other symptoms as well. These include nasal congestion, coughing, chest tightness, and wheezing.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these below.
Congestion is a common byproduct of allergic reactions, caused by excessive inflammation in the sinuses and nasal passages. It can occur as an allergy symptom on its own, contribute to, and in some cases cause shortness of breath. Congestion can present itself in slightly different ways depending on the individual experiencing it but is broadly defined as pressure in the sinuses accompanied by a stuffy or runny nose.
Similarly to congestion, inflammation in the body's airways during an allergic response can cause coughing in some individuals. Irritation in the lungs and larynx can cause a dry or wet cough, both of which can coexist with and worsen shortness of breath.
In many cases, shortness of breath caused by allergies will be accompanied by chest tightness. This refers to feelings of heaviness and discomfort and is an accessory symptom of both allergies and asthma.
Wheezing is a sound produced when airways become narrowed or blocked, which can happen during an allergic reaction. Wheezing and shortness of breath often go hand in hand, with one being the result of the other.
Why Do Allergies Cause Shortness of Breath?
When you have an allergic reaction, your body produces histamine, a chemical that can lead to constriction of the airways. This constriction restricts the amount of air that can enter and exit your lungs, leading to decreased oxygen levels. As a result, you may experience difficulty breathing.
Histamine also causes inflammation of the nasal passages which can lead to congestion, making it even harder to breathe. In people with asthma, this reaction can be even more severe, leading to coughing and difficulty breathing.
Which Allergies Can Cause Shortness of Breath?
Allergy-induced shortness of breath is a general immune response and can occur from exposure to a range of irritants. The most common, however, are those that are airborne - particles that enter the body through inhalation, where they are recognized by the respiratory and immune systems as foreign objects.
Examples of airborne allergens that can lead to shortness of breath include:
Pollen is one of the most common allergies in the United States. A fine, powdery substance, it's produced by seeded plants as part of their reproductive process. Pollen is nearly invisible to the naked eye, extremely lightweight, and can be carried for miles through the wind. Concentrations are typically highest in the spring and fall but can differ depending on where you live.
Dander is a type of skin particle shed from animals that have fur, hair, and feathers. It's produced naturally and will most commonly be found in areas with pets like cats and dogs. Animal dander is also airborne, meaning it can be inhaled and cause an allergic reaction. Allergies to pet dander can also cause a skin rash or hives and allergic asthma.
Mold is a type of fungus that grows in many different environments, but especially in damp and humid places. It spreads by releasing spores into the air, where they can be inhaled and cause a reaction. Mold thrives in dark and damp places, especially basements, bathrooms, and attics, and can be difficult to remove without the help of a professional.
Dust mites are microscopic arachnids that feed on tiny particles of dust. They are commonly found in mattresses, carpets, and upholstered furniture, and release proteins that can cause a reaction when inhaled. As with other allergens, dust mites can cause shortness of breath, as well as itchy skin and eyes.
How Do You Prevent Shortness of Breath From Allergies?
The best way to prevent shortness of breath from allergies is to stop the problem at its source. This means identifying irritants you're sensitive to and taking steps to remove or reduce them from your environment. While not entirely foolproof, it reduces the chances of experiencing the symptom.
If you suspect pollen is causing your allergies, keep windows closed and use an air purifier to help filter the air. Keep an eye on pollen count forecasts for your area and stay indoors when levels are high.
If pet dander is your problem, clean regularly with a vacuum and use air filters to reduce the amount of particles in the air. If you have a pet, it’s also important to bathe and brush your pet regularly, as this can help reduce the amount of dander they produce.
Mold is more difficult to remove. The best way to prevent an allergic reaction from mold is to keep indoor humidity levels below 50%. This can be achieved through the use of a dehumidifier or ventilation system.
Dust mites are generally found in bedding, mattresses, and carpets. To prevent an allergic reaction, use dust mite covers on pillows and mattresses, and wash bedding in hot water at least once a week. Vacuum carpets and furniture regularly, as this will help remove dust mites and their droppings.
This same concept goes for all other allergens as well - taking active steps to reduce contact and exposure is the best and most straightforward way to curb symptoms like shortness of breath.
What Helps Shortness of Breath Due To Allergies?
One of the most common allergy treatments is an antihistamine, which can help temporarily reduce inflammation in the lungs and limit your body's allergic reaction. Nasal sprays, decongestants, and inhalers can also be used to help open up airways and reduce shortness of breath for short-term relief.
It is worth noting though, that these medicines simply band-aid the problem. Symptoms can both persist and worsen if the root cause isn't addressed.
When to See a Doctor
If over-the-counter medicines aren't helping to relieve your symptoms, it's time to consult a doctor. Your doctor may be able to recommend more powerful medications or treatments that can help manage your allergies, as well as discuss further lifestyle changes to prevent future reactions.
You should also see a doctor to determine the cause of your shortness of breath in case it is an indicator of a more serious condition. If you experience any symptoms of a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis, you should also seek emergency medical attention.
One such treatment is sublingual immunotherapy. Sublingual immunotherapy, also called allergy drops or allergy tablets, is an effective way to treat allergies without frequent visits to the doctor. The drops are placed under the tongue and slowly introduce small, gradually increasing amounts of the allergen to your immune system. Over time, this re-trains your immune system to ignore these harmless allergy triggers as opposed to responding with an allergic reaction. Unlike allergy shots, sublingual immunotherapy can be taken from the comfort of your home.
Take Our Allergy Assessment
If you would like to get started with sublingual immunotherapy, look no further than Wyndly. Our team of allergy doctors can help identify your allergy triggers and create a personalized treatment plan for your allergies.
Take our free online allergy assessment to get started today!