Too Old for Allergies?

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.

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