Have you ever experienced new allergy symptoms as an older adult, but attributed them to something else? Did you know that even if you didn’t have allergies as a child, teen or younger adult, you’re not immune to them as an older adult?
It turns out, developing allergies later in life is not only possible — some medical professionals say it’s increasingly prevalent.
“Late onset of allergies have increased exponentially over the years and today it is really quite common,” says Dr. Bob Griesse of Whole Body Health, an Ohio-based medical practice.
Up to 30 percent of adults experience nasal allergies, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Doctors aren’t certain about how many in this group developed allergies as adults, but as the population ages, more cases of adult onset allergies are expected.
There are a number of reasons why someone may develop a new allergy later in life, says Dr. Gustavo Ferrer, a pulmonologist and founder of the Cleveland Clinic Florida Cough Center. He notes that seniors who’ve suffered from asthma or chronic respiratory conditions linked to smoking tend to be more likely to develop an allergy as an older adult. Additionally, aging predisposes you to allergies as your immune system starts to weaken.
“As people who are 65 and older are getting medications that depress their defense mechanisms and immunize systems, they tend to have a higher rate of rhinitis and other respiratory symptoms,” Ferrer says.
Medications and treatments that can suppress the immune system include steroids such as Prednisone, which is used to treat a variety of conditions including arthritis and ulcerative colitis. Those who undergo chemotherapy as part of cancer treatment also experience a weakened immune system and may be more vulnerable to developing allergies as older adults, the doctor says.
Ferrer also points to research that suggests that exposure to chemicals – from pollution, tobacco smoke and pesticides, among others – increases our likelihood of developing allergies.
Adult-onset Allergy Symptoms
If you’ve developed a seasonal allergy to allergens such as pollen or dust, some common signs include rashes or respiratory symptoms such as a runny nose, congestion and cough.
If you’re allergic to a specific food, you may experience a tingling in your mouth, gastrointestinal pain, hives, or swelling of your lips, throat, tongue and face. Food allergens can also cause anaphylaxis, a serious allergic reaction which can be life-threatening. In some cases, food allergies may lead to vomiting and diarrhea, poor circulation and low blood pressure.
Medication-related allergy symptoms to look out for are itchy skin, swelling in your face, rashes, wheezing, hives appearing on your stomach, chest or back or anaphylaxis.
An allergist will evaluate your medical history and may use both skin tests and blood tests to help determine whether you’ve developed a new allergy.
But diagnosing allergies in older adults can be more challenging, and in some cases symptoms are overlooked, since older people are likelier to have other chronic illness that may cause similar symptoms.
“We’ve seen that the picture is less clear on adults when we do skin testing than with children,” Ferrer notes.
Congestion and a sore throat can be dangerous to an older adult with cardiovascular issues, so prompt treatment is important. If your allergy is airborne, your doctor will probably prescribe a nasal steroid or topical treatment.
Non-medical approaches that can help ease allergies include staying indoors as much as possible during pollen season, and changing your clothes or showering after being outdoors when there’s pollen in the air. Ferrer also recommends ridding your home of the allergens that accumulate there by regularly changing out air filters.
For those with a food allergy, be sure to avoid contact with the food proteins that are causing the allergic reaction. Make sure to read any labels on the food you buy to ensure you’re not unknowingly ingesting anything you’re allergic to. When dining at restaurants, you should always ask about what’s in the dish you’re considering before you order. It’s also a good idea to have an auto-injectable epinephrine emergency medication (such as an EpiPen) for anaphylaxis with you at all times.
Meanwhile, Griesse advises making dietary changes to help alleviate allergy symptoms. “The first step is to balance the immune system and check your diet,” he says. “Feeding the body nourishing, nutrient-filled foods will help detoxify and reduce inflammation.”