Allergies can be triggered by a whole host of things. From pollen grains to dust mites and mold, there are a lot of environmental factors we associate with a flare-up of allergy symptoms.
But did you know that environmental allergies, also known as allergic rhinitis, as well as various allergic respiratory diseases can be triggered or exacerbated by pollution? Allergic reactions can be caused by anything that the immune system recognizes as a foreign invader, so it makes sense that allergic diseases can be affected by pollution.
Let’s take a deeper look at the effects of environmental pollution on allergies, including the sources it comes from, symptoms it causes, preventative measures, and treatment options.
What Is Pollution?
In order to look at the effects of environmental pollution on allergies, we first have to define what pollution is. Pollution can be defined simply as contaminants that are introduced into the environment that have harmful effects or changes. Your mind may immediately jump to a picture of trash on the beach or in the water, though there are many different types of pollution, some of which you can’t even see with the naked eye.
Sources of Environmental Pollution
Since environmental pollution is anything that is introduced into an environment that causes negative changes, the sources can be divided into two big categories. This is because there are only two things that can introduce new particulate matter of any kind to an environment– human activity and nature itself.
Humans contribute to air, land, and water pollution all over the United States and the globe. Despite any pollution being harmful, air pollution is particularly harmful to human health.
Human activity, such as driving, causes air pollutants such as diesel exhaust particles, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) or nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide, which are called traffic-related air pollution. This is because these gases and particles which are released from the burning of fossil fuels, change the concentrations of our air composition.
There is an increased prevalence of traffic-related air pollution in urban areas due to population density. You’ll often see what is referred to as “smog”. Though it may appear at first to be fog, smog is the visual representation of all of those diesel exhaust particles and oxides hanging in the air. Even tobacco smoke is considered air pollution.
It is also important to note that land and water pollution can harm human health and while we will touch on it when we talk about symptoms, air pollutants will be the primary focus today.
Though we most frequently associate pollution with human activity, there are also natural pollutants, most of which are air pollutants. These are things like volcanic ash or dust, products from forest fires, and even particles of sea salt.
Outdoor Air Pollution vs. Indoor Air Pollution
The environmental pollutants discussed above are all outdoors, though pollution can also be indoors. Similar to how outdoor air pollution is harmful to health, indoor air pollution is also a concern.
The air quality of your home can greatly affect your immune and respiratory health. High levels of outdoor air pollution can cause ambient air pollution indoors as it comes in through your air conditioning, windows, or doors.
How is Pollution Related to Allergic Diseases?
A multitude of previous studies (such as this one) has all shown significant associations between environmental exposure to ambient air pollution and an increased risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and even developmental disorders in children. This is mostly due to the oxidative stress environmental pollutants cause on a cellular level in the human body.
In addition to being one of the risk factors for these severe health complications, exposure to air pollution is one of the environmental exposures that exacerbate allergic diseases. Most commonly, air pollutants cause or create flare-ups of allergic rhinitis and bronchial asthma.
Allergic rhinitis is the inflammation of the nasal passages when they come into contact with an allergen. Bronchial asthma is a sub-type of asthma that is caused and triggered by pollutants, creating airway inflammation and therefore impaired lung function.
Allergic respiratory diseases, like allergic rhinitis and bronchial asthma, can be provoked by short-term exposure to air pollutants, especially in children.
In addition, atopic eczema (also called atopic dermatitis, an allergic response of the skin) can be caused by short-term exposure to land, water, or air pollution.
Allergic Symptoms Caused by Environmental Pollutants
Allergic rhinitis symptoms that have been triggered by poor air quality include runny nose, nasal congestion, post-nasal drip, scratchy throat, and sneezing. You may also experience itchy, watery eyes. Symptoms stemming from land or water pollution are often itchy, dry skin, or rashes.
Respiratory symptoms exacerbated by environmental exposures are often more severe, sometimes requiring hospital admission. Symptoms can include shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, and blockage of the airway from inflammation.
Thankfully, between prevention and proper treatment, severe symptom attacks can be avoided.
Preventing Increased Environmental Allergies From Pollution
How do you go about preventing these uncomfortable symptoms? There are a few things you can do–each minimizing exposure to environmental pollutants.
Consider implementing these practices for prevention:
- Wear a mask outdoors to filter any particulate matter in the air
- Invest in a home air purifier outfitted with a high-quality allergen filter
- Use a saline nasal spray to rinse your nasal passages after being outdoors
- Keep your windows and doors closed at home and in the car
- Change your clothes when you come home from being out and about
Treating Allergic Reactions and Symptoms From Pollution
With protein-based allergens like grasses and trees, allergic desensitization, a process of introducing the allergens in small doses over time to encourage your immune system to build natural immunity, is one of the treatment options. However, in regards to pollution, this is not really possible since our immune system does not mount a specific immune response to non-protein pollutants, like nitrogen dioxide or carbon monoxide.
Besides making the preventative lifestyle changes above, the main treatment for allergic responses to pollution is medication. Medications are based on your symptoms.
For many symptoms of environmental allergies and even respiratory symptoms, there are medications you can take by mouth. Some of the most common over-the-counter (OTC) oral medications for allergies are Zyrtec (cetirizine), Allegra (fexofenadine), and Claritin (loratidine).
Often, these medications are designed to interrupt the allergic response caused by allergen exposure. Although oral medications may be a convenient option, they are absorbed by the whole body, and thus lead to more side effects.
Another choice for the medication management of environmental allergy symptoms are nasal sprays. Nasal sprays are the gold standard, especially for nasal symptoms. This is because they treat the inflammation right at the interface of where your immune system is exposed to environmental allergens–your nasal membranes. Like some oral medications, nasal sprays disrupt the immune system response.
Despite their effectiveness, many people find that using multiple different sprays with different active ingredients is cumbersome.
There’s now a solution to this with Allermi, an all-in-one nasal spray! Keep reading to learn more.
Inhalers are the front-line treatment option for treating the symptoms of asthma. When combined with the lifestyle changes above, they help control symptoms. When there are also accompanying nasal allergy symptoms, it is important to treat the nose symptoms since this can often prevent the lung symptoms from worsening.
Topical creams are used for allergic diseases of the skin, like atopic dermatitis. They relieve the symptoms of itchiness and dryness.