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Allergens vs Irritants – Which Is Which?

Posted Feb 13 2013 10:06am

Allergies and irritants - You have probably heard both of these terms used.  Sometimes they are confusing and have even been used interchangeably.  Actually, there is a difference, and it is important for you to understand what it is.

An allergy is created as a result of exposure to a biological allergen that your body does not want inside it. It is a reaction on a chemical level inside your cells that has the potential to cause a variety of reactions varying from a rash, to breathing difficulties, to rhinitis (stuffy, runny nose), to edema, and more.

An irritant is something that you are exposed to in the air. It does not illicit an allergic response, because it is not a biological substance. It is something that causes irritation instead of recruiting an allergic response.

Look at it like this—if you run sandpaper against your skin, your skin will be irritated, but not allergic. If you rub poison ivy or oak on your skin, your skin will probably be allergic, not irritated. Biological substances (shellfish, pollens, food additives, ragweed, some medications or properties of medications, gluten, peanuts, etc.) can cause allergic reactions. Non-biological substances (various smokes, gases, fumes, chemicals, odors, etc.) can cause irritation.


Allergens are biological substances that elicit a chemical response in our bodies, triggering the release of certain chemicals and causing an allergic response are called allergens. Each living element in existence has protein markers on its outer most shell that identify it like a name badge.  Sometimes our bodies recognize these elements as foreign, unacceptable visitors. When this happens our bodies essentially launch an attack against its unwanted visitor. This attack recruits a myriad of defenses that ultimately result in our allergic response to whatever the foreign body may be. This response results in an increase of symptoms. There are a few major allergens that are most commonly reported as major contributors to increased symptoms in asthma.

Mold: (It may be pink, white, black, or green.) Mold spores travel through the air and into your respiratory system. They are hardy and withstand most efforts to kill them. Spores protect themselves better than other forms of life.

Cockroaches: If you live in an urban area, this could be a big problem.  Watch for evidence of these invading your home, especially if you live in an apartment or condominium where the housing is together or extremely close. The chance of their presence is greater in these types of living spaces.  Try to keep the kitchen clean and crumbs swept up, lids on tight, and your garbage and sinks as clean as possible. Watch for droppings. If you find them, call an exterminator as soon as possible. Remember to tell him about your asthma in case his method of extermination requires you to be out of the house for a few days.

Rodents: Mouse urine is another prevalent problem in urban areas. If you notice droppings or find other evidence of mice, such as holes in the walls, cupboards, or floorboards or sounds in your walls, call for help to remove them.

Dust Mites: Dust mites are actual microscopic bugs that live in our bedding and mattresses. They eat flakes of dead skin that is left there, and their droppings can be especially irritating to an asthmatic. The best way to control your exposure to dust mites is to use a mattress cover with a plastic backing, encase your pillows in proper plastic cases underneath your regular sheet pillow cases, and wash your sheets regularly in either hot water or cold water with bleach. It is good to dust the area around your bed with a wet cloth (so you don’t throw droppings and dust in the air around you). Vacuum at least once a week with a vacuum that comes equipped with a HEPA filter. If you happen to have stuffed animals on or around your bedding, wrap them in plastic and place them in the freezer for six consecutive hours per week. This will kill the dust mites that may have made your furry stuffed animals their home.

Seasonal Allergies: For many, pollen and ragweed are strong proponents of asthma. Depending on what type of pollens are heaviest in the air on a particular day, it is a good idea to stay indoors sometimes. If this applies to you, it is a great idea to speak to your physician about allergy testing. During this testing, small areas of your skin are exposed to allergens to check for a reaction. Once your allergens are determined, therapy can begin to reduce your reaction to these allergens through a series of shots that expose your body to small amounts of these allergens. With time, you will most likely see improvements in your symptoms upon exposure to these particular allergens. Until then, you can find out what pollens are in the air by watching your local weather channel. Most of them have a pollen count during the high pollen seasons, which can alert you to the level of pollen in the air and give you some indication as to what your exposure will be. If you know that, you can decide if you should stay indoors during parts of the day and enjoy the outdoors when the pollens aren’t flying so much.


Cigarette smoke, smoke from a fire, chemicals, wood particles, dirt, paint fumes, etc., can irritate your asthma. You may have a different reaction to these things than someone else may have. The irritation can cause a swelling in your airways, bronchospasm, and other symptoms of your asthma. These can all be triggers.  The interesting thing is that regardless of what CAUSES the symptoms to increase, the result is the same. Asthma is a disease that is always present. The only difference is the degree to which the symptoms are active. That is why it is important to keep track of and know what your triggers are.

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