Can You Develop Allergies as an Adult?

Updated
Updated

If you didn't get allergies as a child or teenager, you're one of the lucky ones who never will, right? Well, not exactly. The truth is this—adults can get new allergies, too. In fact, you can develop allergies with age, and they can strike during any decade of life.

As you get older, your immune system becomes more sensitive to allergens, which can trigger symptoms. One in five adults develops allergies, which are often triggered by environmental factors such as pollen, grasses, trees, and weeds.

Genes can also play a significant role. While most allergies start in childhood, there are a variety of reasons why new symptoms and conditions might appear well into adulthood.

What Are Adult Allergies?

While most people have heard of allergies or allergic rhinitis (the medical term for the symptoms caused by seasonal allergies), many don't understand exactly why they happen or what triggers them. Most of the time, allergies are caused by environmental factors like dogs and cats, roaches, pollen, grasses, trees, and weeds. But they can also get triggered by foods or certain medicines.

Here's how allergy symptoms happen:

  1. An allergen (like pollen) enters the bloodstream.
  2. B cells (a type of lymphocyte) become activated and produce antibodies (like Immunoglobulin E or IgE). Antibodies are proteins that help the body fight infection.
  3. Antibodies attach to mast cells (a cell that helps to fight infection).
  4. Mast cells release chemicals like histamine when they come into contact with an allergen.
  5. These chemicals cause the symptoms (sneezing, coughing, etc.) of an allergic reaction.

When your body is exposed to a new substance in the environment, it enters into sensitization. The term "sensitization" refers to your immune system's attempt to determine if something you've just encountered poses a threat. If the answer is yes, the substance is classed as an allergen and your body begins producing immunoglobulins E.

Allergies are essentially the result of your body trying to keep you safe from harm, although the substances they’re responding to are essentially harmless. And when symptoms occur, it means your immune system has gone too far in attempting to fight off the benign intruders.

Signs and symptoms of allergies vary from person to person and allergy to allergy. Symptoms can range from mild itching and sneezing to severe anaphylaxis, a life-threatening medical emergency. And people can develop allergies to anything, such as insect stings, medicines, pet dander, food, and so on.

Why Do Adults Develop Allergies?

Allergies are extremely common, affecting up to half of the population at some point in their lives. Some allergies develop at a young age and remain throughout childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood. Other people develop allergies with age. Certain allergies can also worsen or improve over time.

We don't know exactly why allergies happen or what makes one person develop allergies and not another. We do know that allergies are caused by interactions between genes and the environment. That means certain genes predispose us to allergies, but our exposure to allergens in the environment determines whether or not we become allergic.

Genes play a significant role in adult onset allergies. Twin studies have shown that genetics play a role in the development of allergic illnesses, so we know that some people are more predisposed to allergies than others. Research has also shown that having a parent or sibling with allergies may increase the chance of developing allergies.

New environments may also trigger hay fever symptoms. For instance, if you move to a new city and are exposed to a variety of new pollens, grasses, and trees, you may experience new allergic reactions. One example is cedar fever, an allergic reaction to mountain cedar found in the American southwest.

Or, if you've never had a pet and decide to get one as an adult, you may develop an allergy to pet dander. Other outside influences like certain odors, cigarette smoke, air pollution, perfumes, and so on can all set off allergies that you weren't aware of because you've never been exposed to them.

What Are the Types of Adult Onset Allergies?

There are two primary types of adult onset allergies—allergic rhinitis and food allergies.  Allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever, is a reaction to airborne allergens like pollen, pet dander, or dust mites. Food allergies are a reaction to a specific food or foods.

Other less common adult allergies are drug allergies and latex allergies. Drug allergies are a reaction to a particular medication, while latex allergies are a reaction to products containing latex, such as gloves or condoms.

Allergic Rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis or seasonal allergies are fairly common for adults. And they often appear after a move to a new environment. Typically, after the first few seasons you are in a new location, your allergies aren't overly bothersome. However, after spending two or three seasons there, you'll most likely acquire more allergy symptoms.

Food Allergies

Food allergies are much less common for adults to develop because most start in childhood. Certain food allergies, like peanut allergies, don’t disappear easily, but it’s rare for an adult who tolerated peanuts in the past to suddenly develop a severe peanut allergy. However, some adults with a history of food allergies do develop new food allergies.

What Are Adult Allergy Symptoms?

Adult seasonal allergies can mimic the common cold. Symptoms may include:

  • Postnasal drip
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Nasal, ear, or sinus congestion
  • Itchy throat
  • Watery or itchy eyes
  • Dark circles under the eyes (allergic shiners)

If you experience shortness of breath or feel your throat swelling, call 911 or seek medical attention immediately.

How Can I Test for Adult Allergies?

Testing is the best way to determine if you did develop allergies and identify your specific allergens. While your healthcare professional can often diagnose allergies by your symptoms alone, you can order an at-home testing kit to determine which allergens are responsible for your symptoms.

What Is the Best Way to Treat Adult Allergies?

There are a number of different approaches you can take to treat your allergy symptoms.

Avoidance

First, do your best to avoid your allergy triggers to prevent any allergic reactions. For instance, if pollen triggers your symptoms, stay inside during the day when pollen counts are highest.

Medications

Another option is to treat your symptoms with medications. If symptoms are minor and consistent, you may be able to manage them with over-the-counter antihistamines. Antihistamines are a popular treatment for allergies, but they are only a temporary solution.

Sublingual Immunotherapy

If you’re looking for long-term allergy relief, sublingual immunotherapy is the best option. Sublingual immunotherapy is a popular treatment because it desensitizes your body to allergens and doesn’t require weekly office visits and injections.

Long-term Allergy Relief Through Wyndly

At Wyndly, our allergy specialists offer long-term relief through personalized treatment plans. If you're looking for more information about adult onset allergies or want to get started with long-term allergy relief, schedule your initial consultation today with a Wyndly doctor and get an at-home allergy test free!

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