AARP Eye Center
Fifty million Americans suffer from allergies, and the number is increasing. They’re the sixth most common chronic illness in the United States. While most allergic reactions develop in childhood or young adulthood, an estimated 5 to 10 percent of Americans over the age of 65 are either living with chronic allergic reactions or experiencing allergic reactions for the first time. As the population ages — by 2030, 20 percent of Americans will be over 65 — the number of older Americans with allergies should continue to increase.
An allergic reaction occurs when your immune system mistakenly identifies a typically harmless substance or allergen as an intruder. Those substances include dust mites, pollen, mold, pet dander, insect stings, medicines or foods that don’t cause a reaction in most other people. Your immune system responds to these allergens by trying to fight them off like a germ or virus, but with most allergic reactions, it’s responding to a false alarm.
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Because allergy symptoms are so common, your first stop for diagnosis should be your primary care physician. If your symptoms are chronic or intolerable, make an appointment with an allergist, a medical specialist in the diagnosis, treatment and identification of what’s triggering your allergies. Skin and blood tests are the most common tests used for diagnosis.
“As we age, our immune systems get weaker, putting older Americans at higher risk for disease, including allergic reactions,” says Tiffany Owens, M.D., an allergist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Here’s how to recognize and treat five types of allergies that can develop as we age.
1. Hay fever (allergic rhinitis)
During spring, summer and fall, trees, weeds and grasses release pollen into the air. That pollen can get into your nose and throat and trigger an allergic reaction commonly known as hay fever. Nearly 20 million American adults and more than 5 million children suffer from hay fever.
Symptoms: Sneezing; runny or stuffed nose; coughing; post-nasal drip; itchy eyes, nose and throat; red and watery eyes; dark circles under the eyes
Treatment: The most effective treatment is a nasal steroid or anti-inflammatory medicine that you spray into your nose and that can be bought over the counter. You can also control your environment by staying indoors more when pollen counts are high outside and by using air purifiers and air conditioners. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, you should wash your hands and face often to get rid of pollen that may have collected there.
“Antihistamines or drugs used to treat symptoms of allergies can sometimes cause cognitive issues. When possible, rely on topical medications or second-generation antihistamines such as Claritin, Allegra or Zyrtec,” says Jennifer Namazy, M.D., an allergist and immunologist at the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California.