If you are an adult who doesn’t suffer from allergies, congratulations!
But don’t celebrate quite yet. Those lovely symptoms – itchy eyes, runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing and coughing – might still be in your future.
Allergies can happen at any age. And experiencing them for the first time as an adult can be downright aggravating.
There are many reasons you might not develop an allergy until adulthood, but the first is very simple.
“You have to have exposure to something to be allergic to it,” said Charles Frey, Jr., DO, an allergist with OSF HealthCare.
Who gets allergies?
For instance, people who live in the Midwest could develop spring allergies to the pollen of the trees that are common in the region – such as elm, oak and maple – but not to queen palm trees, which grow in more tropical climates.
Allergies are maddening – and not just because of the symptoms.
They are unpredictable. You could spend years being exposed to certain pollens before experiencing symptoms.
Allergies cannot be “caught” like a virus such as COVID-19 or the common cold. The ability to develop allergies is inherited.
“Allergies run in families,” Dr Frey said.
So, if one of your parents has a spring tree allergy, you might develop a tree pollen allergy — or not. Instead, you might develop a ragweed allergy that leaves you sneezing in the fall.
And allergies can skip a generation, so even if your parents have no allergy symptoms, you might develop them.
“Probably about 80% of adults with inhalant allergies carry them from childhood,” Dr. Frey said. “But adults can develop allergies at any age. I have seen patients develop new seasonal or perennial allergies in their 50s or 60s.”
What kinds of allergies?
About 20% of the adult population suffers from one or more types of allergies, Dr. Frey said. There are two types of allergic rhinitis, or inhalant allergies — meaning things that people breathe in. Those types are seasonal and perennial.
Seasonal allergies occur only during specific times, especially when certain plants are pollinating. Once the pollination process is completed, allergy symptoms tend to subside.
Dr. Frey outlined the three main allergy “seasons” in the Midwest
- Trees, which pollinate in April and May
- Grasses, which pollinate in May, June, and early July
- Ragweed, which pollinates in late August, September and early October
One misconception people have about most seasonal allergies is that they are allergic to the trees or grasses themselves. That’s not true. The pollen is the allergen. Once the pollen dissipates, it’s fine to be around the grass or the trees. Until next year’s pollen season.
Perennial allergies can occur year-round. These include:
- Animal dander
- Dust or dust mites
- Indoor mold
“Perennial allergies can actually be worse during the winter months because people are indoor more often and windows are closed,” Dr. Frey said.
In addition, outdoor mold can trigger allergy symptoms at wetter times of year.
Treating allergy symptoms
If you begin to experience new symptoms, see an allergist. The allergist can test to pinpoint the kinds of allergies affecting you, and strategize the best treatment plan.
Providers help patients fight allergies in three main ways:
- Environmental controls, such as keeping windows closed during outdoor mold and pollen seasons, keeping a pet out of sleeping spaces or limiting outdoor time during pollen seasons.
- Allergy medications, including antihistamines and nasal products. “Allergy medications have the advantage of working fairly quickly,” Dr. Frey said.
- Immunotherapy, or allergy shots, to build immunity to the allergen over a period of years
Allergies too much to handle?
Not treating allergy symptoms can be a bad idea. A person with allergies may be more prone to secondary infections. Those include sinus infection or asthma that can develop from severe pet dander allergies.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a specific diet, exercise or supplement to prevent allergies from developing.
“The good news is that leading a healthy lifestyle is both good for you and helps you tolerate conditions like the effects of allergies,” Dr. Frey said. “But simply living a healthy life has no bearing on whether or not you will experience allergy symptoms.”