Understanding the Link Between Allergies and Arthritis

Understanding the Link Between Allergies and Arthritis

While more research is necessary, some current findings suggest that certain types of allergies can worsen the joint pain associated with arthritis — in particular, rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

The connection may be due in part to the similar inflammatory processes responsible for causing both allergies and arthritis. In both conditions, your immune system overreacts to something — an allergen, your body’s own tissues — causing inflammation.

Effectively treating and managing both conditions can help reduce the impact allergies may have on your arthritis. We’ll go over the current research and what treatments are available.

The two most common types of arthritis are rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA). RA is an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, primarily in the joints. OA is usually the result of long-term wear-and-tear on a joint, or joint damage caused by a major injury.

While research into the connection between allergies and arthritis is ongoing, there are several studies that show an overall association between the two conditions and their risk factors.

For example, a 2015 study exploring the connection between allergies and rheumatoid arthritis suggests that people with at least one allergy have a greater risk of developing RA. The association is likely due to the two conditions developing in similar ways, primarily related to a chronic, irregular response of the immune system.

Certain allergy-arthritis connections are better studied than others, and some research is mixed or unclear. Let’s review what experts have discovered regarding specific allergies and arthritis.

Foods and certain ingredients that tend to increase inflammation in the body may also worsen arthritis symptoms. This includes added sugars, processed meats, and alcohol, among others.

However, a 2019 study suggests that food allergies, particularly those involving red meat, pork, and crab, may play a role in a type of spinal arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis (AS).

Allergies to pollen and other substances in the environment can trigger symptoms such as a stuffy nose, watery eyes, and sneezing. Dealing with those symptoms can lead to fatigue and lessened activity levels, which may exacerbate joint pain.

Just as food allergies can increase the body’s inflammation levels and worsen joint pain, so too can seasonal allergies.

Do you remember how the flu can causes aches and pains while your body fights off an infection? This is because your immune system is working hard to overcome the virus, creating inflammation in your stomach, lungs, throat, and elsewhere. Seasonal allergies cause a similar process to occur as your immune system seeks to repel the allergen.

Drug allergies occur when you are allergic to one or more components of a medication. Some drug allergies may be mild and hardly noticeable, while others can be life threatening.

Common drug allergies include penicillin and other antibiotics, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen or naproxen.

Symptoms of a drug allergy can look like:

Research into the effects of drug allergies on arthritis is relatively scarce. However, a 2020 study suggests that drug allergies may be more common in people with RA than in the general population. The study notes that allergies to NSAIDs and antibiotics were among the medications most likely to trigger allergic responses.

If you believe you or a loved one is experiencing the symptoms of a drug allergy — including chest pain, trouble breathing, or loss of consciousness — seek emergency assistance.

Atopic dermatitis, a type of eczema, is caused by an irregular immune response that creates inflammation in your skin cells.

People with atopic dermatitis have an increased risk of other autoimmune disorders, including RA, according to a German 2016 analysis of medical records for more than 650,000 adults.

Rheumatoid arthritis can affect any joint, but the most common parts of the body affected by RA include the hands, wrists, and knees. RA often attacks more than one joint, and over time may affect organs including the heart and lungs.

When allergies affect RA, the joints already affected by arthritis are the ones that may experience worsening symptoms. The same is true for osteoarthritis, which can also affect any joint, but most commonly involves the knees, hips, spine, and hands.

It’s important to effectively manage both allergies and arthritis for the best total symptom relief, and to lower inflammation levels and prevent future flares.

Allergy treatments

Treating an allergy often involves a two-fold approach. The first is to avoid allergens as much as possible. This might mean lifestyle behaviors such as eliminating certain foods from your diet or staying indoors when pollen counts are high.

The second approach is to take medications to prevent an allergy flare-up, or in order to ease symptoms when your allergies act up. Some allergy medications, especially those to treat seasonal allergies, may be administered by your doctor as a shot prior to the start of allergy season for long-lasting protection.

Common medications used to treat allergies include:

  • antihistamines to block the effects of histamines — substances produced by the immune system in response to allergen exposure
  • corticosteroids, either as topical creams and ointments, nasal sprays, or as oral medications
  • decongestants to prevent blood vessels from constricting in your nose
  • epinephrine, a synthetic hormone to treat severe allergic reactions, such as anaphylaxis

Using an air purifier with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter at home or work can also help clear allergens out of your immediate environment. These filters can also reduce airborne loads of viruses, such as COVID-19.

Arthritis treatments

Treating arthritis effectively also requires a multi-faceted approach.

The gold-standard treatment for arthritis includes:

  • ice and rest to ease symptoms during an arthritis flare-up
  • knee braces or other means of support depending on the affected joint
  • medications, such over-the-counter pain relievers or prescription drugs
  • physical therapy to help strengthen the muscles around an affected joint and to maintain the flexibility and stability of the joint

There’s a wide range of arthritis medications targeted to specific types, including rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis is the most closely linked to allergies, due in part to the immune system’s similar function in bringing about both conditions. Many allergies and types of arthritis involve an irregular immune system response where your body mistakenly identifies a non-threatening pathogen or its own tissues as an invader.

In treating both arthritis and allergies, doctors seek to soothe acute symptoms while putting together a plan to prevent future symptom flares. In each instance, this may involve avoiding known triggers, making lifestyle adjustments, and taking medication.

If you have a known allergy, such as those discussed here, consider talking to your doctor about your risk factors for developing rheumatoid or another arthritis.

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