What to know about intrinsic and extrinsic asthma

Asthma is a chronic lung condition in which the airways narrow and become inflamed, which leads to wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness. Extrinsic asthma and intrinsic asthma are subtypes of asthma.

The symptoms of these subtypes are the same, but they have different triggers:

Extrinsic asthma symptoms occur in response to allergens, such as dust mites, pollen, and mold. It is also called allergic asthma and is the most common form of asthma.

Intrinsic asthma has a range of triggers, including weather conditions, exercise, infections, and stress. People may call it nonallergic asthma.

In this article, we discuss the causes, symptoms, and treatment of intrinsic and extrinsic asthma.

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic asthma

Intrinsic and extrinsic asthma are two subtypes of asthma, which people more commonly refer to as allergic and nonallergic asthma.

Both types cause the same symptoms. The difference between the two subtypes is what causes and triggers asthma symptoms. The treatments are similar for each type, although the prevention strategies differ.

Triggers

Intrinsic and extrinsic asthma have the same symptoms but different triggers.

In people with extrinsic asthma, allergens trigger the respiratory symptoms. Common triggers for extrinsic asthma include:

pollen

mold

dust mites

pet dander

cockroaches

rodents

In some cases, a person is allergic to more than one substance, and several allergens trigger asthma symptoms.

In people with intrinsic asthma, allergies are not responsible for the symptoms. Instead, the following triggers cause symptoms:

cold

humidity

stress

exercise

pollution

irritants in the air, such as smoke

respiratory infections, such as colds, the flu, and sinus infections

In some cases, intrinsic asthma can occur with no known cause.

Prevalence

Extrinsic or allergic asthma is the most common form of the disease. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, about 60% of people with asthma have allergic asthma.

Less commonly, intrinsic or nonallergic asthma occurs. Research in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology indicates that intrinsic asthma occurs in anywhere from 10% to 33% of people with asthma.

It occurs more often in females than males and typically develops later in life than extrinsic asthma.

Causes

In all types of asthma, a person has overly sensitive airways and airway inflammation, which produces asthma symptoms.

Inflammation causes swelling in the airways that narrows the tubes and makes breathing difficult. The body also produces excess mucus, which further impairs breathing. These factors decrease the amount of air that can get into the lungs.

The inflammatory processes are similar in extrinsic and intrinsic asthma. In both, the immune system releases cells called T-helper cells and mast cells.

Research has found that there may be more similarities between the two types of asthma than researchers previously thought. Both types of asthma involve the production of IgE locally at the airways in response to the relevant triggers:

Extrinsic asthma occurs when the immune system overreacts to a harmless substance, such as pollen or dust. The body releases an antibody called immunoglobin E (IgE). The release of this antibody leads to inflammation and asthma symptoms.

Intrinsic asthma occurs when something other than allergens triggers an immune system response. People are not always able to identify the trigger.

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Symptoms

Symptoms of asthma include wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.

The symptoms of extrinsic and intrinsic asthma are the same and may include:

wheezing

chest tightness

shortness of breath

coughing

increased mucus production

trouble breathing

Symptoms can vary in severity and may develop suddenly. Ignoring the signs and symptoms of an asthma attack can lead to a life-threatening situation. Recognizing symptoms as soon as possible and following an asthma action plan can help decrease the severity of an attack and reduce complications.

Treatments

The treatment options for intrinsic and extrinsic asthma are similar and include medications, lifestyle changes, and the avoidance of triggers. Since the triggers are different, the prevention strategies may differ.

Reducing triggers

It may be easier to identify the triggers for extrinsic asthma because allergies are the culprit. With both types of asthma, the identification of triggers allows an individual to take steps to reduce exposure and decrease symptoms.

The following steps can help reduce asthma symptoms in people with extrinsic asthma:

fixing leaky pipes to prevent mold buildup

keeping doors and windows closed when the pollen count is high

vacuuming often to reduce dust

keeping pets out of the bedroom

Triggers of intrinsic asthma do not involve a specific allergen. Due to the variability of triggers, it can take a little longer to determine the cause of flare-ups. People may find that avoiding humid, dry, or cold weather can prevent symptoms.

Medications

People can use the following medications to treat flare-ups of both intrinsic and extrinsic asthma:

Short-acting bronchodilators

Short-acting bronchodilators, also called quick relief medications, reduce symptoms fast. They work by relaxing the muscles of the airways.

Long-acting medications

People take long-acting bronchodilators daily, and they also open up the airways. Long-acting bronchodilators do not treat sudden symptoms as they take longer to work than short-acting bronchodilators.

Corticosteroids

Corticosteroids decrease inflammation in the airways. People take steroids daily to prevent symptoms.

Omalizumab

Omalizumab is an anti-IgE antibody therapy that prevents the release of IgE. Reducing IgE decreases the allergic response and prevents asthma symptoms.

People usually use omalizumab to treat extrinsic asthma, but it may also help with intrinsic asthma.

Lifestyle changes

Reducing stress can help relieve the symptoms of both types of asthma.

Lifestyle changes might also help decrease symptoms of both types of asthma.

People with asthma may wish to consider adopting the following lifestyle practices:

maintaining a healthy weight

quitting smoking

avoiding secondhand smoke

reducing stress

getting a flu vaccine each year

washing the hands frequently to decrease the risk of infection

Outlook

Although there is currently no cure for either extrinsic or intrinsic asthma, people can manage the symptoms with medications, prevention methods, and lifestyle changes.

Intrinsic asthma is often harder to control than extrinsic asthma, as identifying its triggers is sometimes difficult. People can work closely with a doctor to determine the causes of asthma symptoms and find an effective treatment.

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