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Allergies in Adulthood: Why We Get Them and How to Cope

March 04, 2019

So you thought you were in the clear on getting new allergies when suddenly the spring or fall sniffles hit! Turns out, you’re not alone. It’s not uncommon to get allergies — even food allergies — in your 20s, 30s or later. Exactly why some allergies kick in later in life is unclear. But the treatment for the resulting watery eyes and runny noses is the same for adults as it is for children.

Understanding Allergies

Regardless of age, allergy symptoms are the result of an overactive immune system. When exposed to an allergen — something that could cause an allergic reaction, perhaps pollen or dust mites on a pillow — a person’s immune system may kick into gear. While the allergen may be harmless, the body reacts as though it’s under attack, releasing chemicals called histamines. The histamines signal the nasal membranes to make more mucus, leading to runny nose and cough. In more severe allergies to food, medications, insect bites or other allergens, histamines can lead to a dangerous reaction called anaphylaxis, which can cause death.

Causes in Older Adults

We don’t know why some allergies start during adulthood, but scientists have a few theories, including:

  • Unrecognized childhood allergies. Some people have mild symptoms in childhood that fade in their teen years. These allergies can return later in life. 
  • Exposure to environmental triggers. Mold, indoor air pollutants and other irritants can cause an adult’s immune system to react to other possible allergens.
  • New exposure to possible allergens. A move to a new area with different plants and pollen — or a new pet when you’ve never had one in the past — could expose your body to allergens it hadn’t encountered before.

Food allergies can develop long past childhood too — surprisingly, 15% of food allergies start in adulthood. And people can even outgrow one allergy and later develop an allergy to something else. Much of the human immune system response remains a mystery.

Treatment Options

As a first step in reducing your allergic reactions, try a few lifestyle changes to lower your exposure:

  • Track your local pollen counts with an online app or weather service, close windows and doors, and stay inside when counts are high.
  • Use the dryer instead of a clothesline for drying sheets and towels, especially during spring and fall pollen seasons.
  • Avoid outdoor morning activity when pollen counts are highest.
  • Shower and change clothes after outdoor activity to remove pollen from skin and hair.

Medical solutions to allergy symptoms are the same whether the patient is a child or an adult. Over-the-counter antihistamines are effective for many, and steroid nasal sprays can provide relief from common symptoms. For longer-lasting relief, allergen immunotherapy — or allergy shots — can greatly reduce or get rid of the immune system response to environmental triggers, like animal hair and pollen. It’s a process that can take several years, but it’s been shown to help up to 85% of patients who follow through with it.