UA logo Allergy and Asthma in the
Southwestern United States
Information for patients with allergy and related problems
in the Southwest

Causes of allergies and sinusitis: rhinitis, sinusitis, mechanisms of respiratory allergy

Mechanisms of Respiratory Allergy 
Symptoms of allergic rhinitis / Symptoms of asthma / Interaction of heredity and environment / Bronchial irritability/ Allergy - bronchial irritability relationships 


Causes of symptoms of allergic rhinitis (hay fever).   Symptoms of this problem are caused by a combination of
- excessive secretions of mucus glands in the nose,
- congestion of large veins (venous sinusoids) in the nasal cavity causing obstruction to nasal airflow, and
- irritation of sensory nerves in the nose, throat and eyes by allergic inflammation. 
These symptoms occur when airborne allergens are inhaled.  These allergens are harmless unless the body's immune system reacts to them by making antibodies to them.   In allergic reactions these antibodies are in the IgE class of antibodies which stick to the surface of specialized cells called mast cells.  Allergens combine with IgE antibodies to release  substances including histamine, leukotrienes and cytokines from mast cells and other cells in the lining of the nose.  These substances cause inflammation and symptoms of allergy.


Causes of symptoms of asthma.   Symptoms of asthma are caused by excessive secretions in the bronchi, spasm of smooth muscle in the bronchial wall and inflammatory swelling of the bronchial lining (mucosa).  These changes cause obstruction to airflow in and out of the lungs.  The increased obstruction during exhalation leads to shortness of breath, wheezing  and trapping of air in the chest.  Cough is caused by increased airway secretions and airway inflammation.
Diagnosis and management of asthma requires measurement of lung function with spirometry.

Interaction of heredity and environment  The tendency to become allergic in individuals with allergic asthma is inherited.  For example, over 50% of children whose parents both have allergic disease will also develop allergic disease.  Allergy is controlled by several genes that influence production of IgE antibodies.  Allergic disease develops only when a person becomes exposed to those allergens to which he has become sensitive due to genetic predisposition.  There is increasing evidence to suggest that predisposition to respiratory allergy may also be increased by protection from bacterial exposure in early childhood (such as aggressive antibiotic therapy of respiratory infection, and avoidance of exposure to animals). 

Mechanisms of bronchial irritability.   A fundamental problem in asthma is irritability of bronchi caused by inflammation in the bronchial walls.  The inflammation causes loss of protective epithelial cells from the mucosa (lining of the bronchial wall), exposing sensitive nerve endings to the irritating effects of chemical air pollutants and dry air.  Predisposition to asthma is inherited, probably as the result of multiple genetic factors, some of which are independent of allergy-determining genes.  Research suggests that genes that control various inflammatory mechanisms are important in causing allergic inflammation in the lung.

Relationships between allergy and bronchial irritability.  Allergic reactions in the lungs cause inflammation during which inflammatory cells called eosinophils and lymphocytes are attracted to the bronchial tissues.  Products from these cells cause damage to the bronchial lining, which in turn leads to bronchial irritability that may persist for several weeks after withdrawal from allergen exposure. This is most likely to occur when there is a delayed response to allergen known as a late phase reaction.   Prolonged allergic inflammation in the bronchial walls may lead to thickening of the supportive membrane under the epithelial lining of the bronchial airways, and to a gradual and progressive loss of the ability of the airways to respond to a bronchodilator drug.

For additional information on how abnormalities of the immune system cause allergic reactions, follow these links to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology:
What is an Allergic Reaction?

Additional information on asthma
Asthma triggers and management
Exercise-induced asthma
Occupational asthma
Asthma in pregnancy
Rachelefsky G, Garrison P: Free your child from asthma.  McGraw Hill, New York, 2006

More informative links to asthma and allergy sites

Disclaimer:   This site is for educational purposes only.  Any information that you have found in this web site is not intended to replace medical care or advice given to you by your own physicians. You should consider consulting your local medical library and other web sites for additional information. 

Comments and suggestions welcome!   Email:
Content Owner:  Michael J. Schumacher, MB, FRACP, The University of Arizona

Updated 5/2012