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Health & Wellness

Ask GetOld: Can Adults Develop Allergies in Their 50s, 60s, or Beyond?

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The misery of allergies – stuffy nose, watery eyes, hives, digestive issues – can strike early.

Many people develop them in childhood or in young adulthood. However, allergies can develop any time. The onset of an allergy in one’s fifties, sixties, or later may not be as common, but it does happen. “While we need more studies, adult-onset allergies are becoming increasingly recognized,” says Shaan Waqar, M.D., an allergist in Iselin, New Jersey.

Late-in-life allergies can be developed to both indoor and outdoor allergens, including:

  • Foods. “Even when someone has been eating foods for decades that were previously tolerated without any problem, sudden allergies can develop,” says Waqar. “The most common foods that trigger allergy in adults are shellfish and tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pistachios and cashews), followed by soy, fish and peanuts.”
  • Cosmetics and body products. “People that have used a product for decades may all of a sudden develop rashes to that same product,” Waqar says.” The types of products that can trigger allergies are broad and include fragrance, hair dye, shampoo, facial cleansers, makeup, and lip balm.”
  • Pollen from trees, grass and weeds.
  • Animal dander in dogs, cats or birds.
  • Dust mites and mold.
  • Medication; chemicals; latex.

Just what leads to developing allergies as an adult isn’t entirely clear. A personal history of allergies appears to be one factor. “Someone who has long had hay fever or eczema may develop a food allergy later in life,” Waqar says. “A family history of allergies is also a risk factor. And, for some reason, more women than men experience adult-onset food allergies.”

In some cases, an allergy might have always been present, but in such a mild form that it went unnoticed for years. “Gradually over time, the allergy symptoms worsen,” says Waqar, “until they get troublesome enough that someone decides to seek treatment.”

Moving to a new geographical area upon retirement can expose you to different types – or a denser concentration –  of grasses, trees, or weeds, and that can lead you to experience seasonal allergies for the first time. Typically, Waqar says, it takes two years for these allergies to develop after a move. “The first spring your body becomes sensitized to the new pollen,” he says, “and the following years is when the body reacts strongly with classic symptoms like sneezing, a runny or stuffy nose, and watery, itchy eyes.”

Likewise, repeated exposure to a chemical, at home or at work, can lead to the development of a new allergy, with the telltale reaction of a skin rash.

A new pet in your life can also trigger full-blown allergic reactions. Maybe you’ve always had dogs and you decide to get a cat. Or, perhaps, it’s your grandkids or a new romantic interest who introduces Rover or Kitty into your life.

As we get older, we may also develop what’s known as "nonallergic rhinitis." With symptoms of chronic sneezing and a dripping nose, the condition resembles an allergy. And while it may be triggered by similar irritants, like dust or a change in weather, unlike an allergy, nonallergic rhinitis doesn’t involve the immune system and rarely causes an itchy nose or eyes.

In any case, Waqar says, these bothersome symptoms shouldn’t be ignored. An allergist can differentiate nonallergic rhinitis from allergies, identify the causes of either, and suggest a treatment that may involve over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines, nasal sprays, and, in some cases, allergy shots. It’s especially important to see a doctor if you suspect you may have a food allergy. “These can be life threatening,” Waqar says, “and it’s essential to carry an epinephrine injector in case of a severe reaction.” (As vigilant as you try to be, you might not recognize that there’s peanuts or minced shrimp in a dish until it’s too late.)

“Allergists have lots of tools to help you manage,” says Waqar, adding, “Before you decide to give up a new relationship with someone who has a cat that causes you to sneeze or visits to the grandkids after they get a puppy that leaves you with itchy eyes, see an allergist.” 

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