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Healthy Aging

Too Old for Allergies?

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 03/27/2012
Last Updated: 03/29/2012

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A story about runny noses, itchy eyes and the dreaded "A" word.

A friend of mine—poor thing—has been sneezing and coughing and chasing down her runny nose for weeks. At first convinced it was her usual end-of-winter cold, she treated it as such with lots of steaming hot chicken soup, lozenges and decongestants.

When, after the expected time, it did not subside—but only worsened—she became concerned and visited her doctor. The news surprised her: she didn't have a cold at all but, instead, she had allergies.

When she told me, she wasn't the only one who was surprised. She was in her 50s and never had allergies up until now. I always thought that allergies developed early on and persisted into adulthood. I figured since I never had allergies that I was well out of the woods by now and would never have to worry about them. How wrong I was: adult-onset allergies plague many a grown-up. You may have been a carefree child not paying heed to the fur on your dog or the food on your plate, but as an adult, you might need to start.

Another friend told me her husband could no longer eat clams. Suddenly one night after dinner, his body broke out in welts. Any food you've eaten your entire life without a problem could throw you into an allergic fit. Or you could think you've outgrown a food allergy you had as a kid and be in the clear for many years, and then—wham!—your love affair with that food is over.

What is the culprit here? Genetics play a role, as does the environment. If both your parents have allergies, it's likely that you will, too. (And for whatever reason, your chance is greater if your mother has allergies. Another guilt trip for moms everywhere.)

A person with allergies has an oversensitive immune system. Normally, the immune system does a fine job in protecting your body against foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. When an oversensitive immune system senses an allergen, it pumps out chemicals such as histamines, which fight off the allergen (or try to). What ensues: allergy symptoms like runny noses, sneezing, wheezing, headache, hives or rashes, red itchy eyes and maybe even stomach cramps, vomiting or diarrhea.

Common allergens include pollen, dust and dust mites, mold, pet dander, insect stings, foods, medications, latex and other substances.

If you are suddenly stuffy and feel like you have a cold that came from nowhere, it's likely you breathed in something that is not agreeing with your immune system; if your eyes are itchy, watery, red or swollen, you've probably touched your eye after you touched an allergen. Similarly, it may be something you ate that is causing you to feel sick to your stomach or have cramping, nausea or vomiting.

It's easy to avoid food allergies: don't eat the food that causes them. For nasal allergies, the list is a bit longer and more involved, though not impossible to follow:

  • Track your local weather. When allergy season hits, most reports will give the pollen count.
  • If you have a dog or cat, clean their paws and dust off their coats when they come in to prevent them from dragging in stuff from the outside. (I could tell you to leave them outside or limit them to one or two rooms of your house, but since I'm a pet lover, it's hard to advise that.) Better yet, keep up with their regular baths and brushing.
  • Use a good air filter. But make sure it's the right one. Inexpensive central furnace/air conditioning filters and ionic electrostatic room cleaners aren't helpful, according to studies. Some people swear by high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to trap allergens. Some vacuums come with these types of filters; you can also put them on air conditioning or central heating vents.
  • Take a shower and change to fresh clothes when you come in from the outside, especially if you've been gardening.
  • Keep your windows shut. The fresh air is wonderful, but pollen can drift inside during allergy season and get comfy deep inside your carpets and/or the surface of your furniture. Same goes for your car upholstery.

If you aren't sure what's causing your allergies or you can't get them under control on your own, see an allergist, who has ways to determine what is making you so miserable and can suggest effective treatments. Allergy shots (immunotherapy) might stop your suffering altogether.

Comments

I think you're right--- most people don't think about late-onset allergies!
Best, Lila

I developed an allergy to cats in my 20s and in my 40s I've developed an allergy to chlorine in pools. Add this to my seasonal allergies and I'm a ton of fun. Thanks for these tips!

This post rang very true for me. I have had allergies since I was 10, to detergent, to perfume, to candida albicans. I was treated at 20 and lived well for 40 years. Then, boom, I developed hives after a particularly stressful winter. They can last up to six weeks. After that, the dermatologist sends you to the allergist.

Stress can do so many things to our bodies - sorry about your hives! Hope you were able to get them under control.

When I was in my 20s, I suddenly developed a terrible reaction to penicillin. I had been taking it for tonsilitis all of my life. But this time, I broke out into hives and was immediately put on a drip to counter the drug in the hospital's ER as I was having problems breathing. I can no longer take antibiotics that has it in it. I've also developed an allergy to smoke and some weeds, but some other allergies I had when I was a child seem to be gone. Weird how it all works.

That certainly is weird, LL. Seems like you swapped allergies.

My husband was just saying that he took two allergy pills already this season! It's very early; usually begins in May.

Skin conditions, too, like eczema, can suddenly strike in adulthood, as I've come to find out. You're more at risk for eczema if your mom has asthma. At least I didn't get asthma!

I never knew that about the eczema/asthma connection. Thanks for the info, Sandy...and glad you didn't get asthma, too!

good points all. I hadn't realized that about touching your eyes -- I thought the stuff just got into your eyes.

I'd add, too, that if you move or travel to a different part of the country (or world) the new environment cna hold pollen that'll trigger allergic reactions, too.

That's a good point, Kerry, about being in a different area. I guess many people don't realize that they can be fine in one place and be exposed to a whole different set of allergens somewhere else.

Sorry you've joined the allergy crowd. I've had them for years every spring and fall. A Claritin usually does the trick, though.

No, it's not me, Nancy - it's my friend. I do hope I don't "catch" any allergies!

Austinites think our city is the allergy capital of the universe. Don't know what we'd talk about here if it weren't for our ongoing allergy complaints. Or so I tell myself between sneezes.

I didn't know that about Austin, Ruth. It's a place I've always wanted to visit, too. Better bring some tissues...just in case!

I live in southern CA with moderate allergies, I was in San Antonio last weekend and was crazy miserable even on Allegra D 24hr, I was told by many residents that it was the Cedar trees, every time I stepped outside I would cry like a baby and dripped like a bad faucet! Now back in CA and allergies are worse!

Great tips. I never had allergies until I got into my 40s, and it took me totally by surprise. I kept thinking I was getting a cold; turns out it was allergies. Now I take a Claritin every day year-round and it seems to keep things in check.

From reading all these comments, it's really amazing how many people are finding allergies for the first time as they get older~!

I had allergies all my life, but wasn't treated. I'd joke that I was allergic to work because I sneezed so much at work. Turns out, I was allergic to the all the dust in newsprint at the newspaper offices where I worked. But I only found out when I was diagnosed with allergy-induced asthma at age 50. I also discovered I'm allergic to pollens, molds, pet dander (we have cats and a dog), and just about everything except food (thank goodness!). If I'd been treated sooner, I might have avoided asthma, so if you have allergies that aren't controlled, speak up and ask your doctor about seeing an allergist.

Thanks for sharing your story, Marcia. So sorry, though, that you have so many environmental allergies; it must be hard. Hopefully the food allergies will stay at bay for you.

I'm glad to say that my childhood allergies improved as I grew up. I still suffer starting in April and getting worse toward autumn, but it's nothing like when I was a kid. With this weird spring weather, we heard on the news that pollen counts had tripled overnight last week. No wonder so many people are so miserable.

That's so encouraging, Roxanne, rather than having it the other way around. Good to know!~

I didn't have childhood allergies either but now I'm living on Allegra. I had no idea allergies could be sooo bad--until now. I'm keeping the windows shut but I must admit I love going outside.

My seasonal allergies have gotten worse as I age. One thing that helps me is using a saline wash in my nose twice a day. If I'm out in the garden or around road dust, I also use the saline wash as soon as I come inside. It really helps.

Thanks for that tip, Donna. I recently heard that saline rinses can drive irritants further up into your sinuses, but I know that a lot of people - and docs - swear by this technique. Glad it's working for you.

Crab is one of my favorite indulgences. Or should I say was? Ten years ago, I sat down to a dinner of cold crab legs and wine and ended up violently ill. It happened again a month or so later. Now, no crab for me.

Kris, So sorry one of your favorite things is now a no-no!

I never had allergies til last year and I cannot believe I still have them! I now take zertec every single morning, wash my hands all the time but nothing really helps, had tests done but showed no allergies! I have cats who love me and want to be on my lap all the time and I let them but they dont seem to be the cause of my sneezing so I have just given up and deal with it. I do suspect though, that the carpet my kitties lie on are bothering me , so.... very soon it will be gone and hello wood flooring!!

Anecdotally, I've been amazed at how many of my friends have developed allergies later in life. That and bad backs, bad knees, and other more expected ailments of aging.

I have eaten chines many times over the years, but recently took out my family for dinner ( Chinese ), and spent a most uncomfortable, and sleepless night, with allergic reaction to MSG; rapid heartbeat, feeling warm and lethargic. I'll try to remember this for the next time I go out to dinner. I eat in 90% of the time, so I tend forget these things over time.

Allergies starting for the first time after 50 is news to me. I've heard that pregnancy, change of weather and lifestyle all affect the onset of allergies. I'm sharing this article with other people with allergies on www.affimity.com

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