Let’s be clear: Allergies aren’t kids’ stuff. Well, they’re not just kids’ stuff.
That scratchy throat you thought was just a cold? The runny nose you figured was the flu? That run-down feeling you just can’t shake?
Sure, you may be paying into Social Security or have a kid in college. You might even have grandkids. But even though you’re an adult, you could have allergies even if you’ve never had them before.
“The interesting thing is, the majority of people get allergies for the first time -- when I say allergies, I mean like allergic rhinitis, asthma, those kinds of things -- as a kid,” says Kevin McGrath, MD, an allergist in Wethersfield, CT. “But we often see the onset in a lot of adults, around the 30s and 40s, and another group in the 50s and 60s. It can go in any age group.”
So anybody can come down with an allergy? At any age? For the first time?
“I’ve seen people in their 60s and 70s that are retired, never had any allergy symptoms or asthma and suddenly develop it,” McGrath says. “It’s pretty frustrating if somebody finally gets to retire and they walk out the door to play golf, they’ve never had trouble before, and suddenly they do.”
How Common Are They?
Nearly 18 million adults in the United States have hay fever, or allergic rhinitis. It’s caused by pollens, weeds, grasses, and molds. Many more have allergic reactions to other things in the environment, like dust mites, dogs, and cats. Some are allergic to foods, like peanuts or shellfish. Still others are allergic to medicines, like penicillin.
Doctors don’t know exactly how many adults are diagnosed with allergies for the first time. But nasal allergies affect as many as 30% of adults, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
“As the population is aging, we’re seeing that people can have late-onset allergies,” says Beth Corn, MD, an allergist in New York City. “Now, it could be that some people were not diagnosed; they might have really had allergies earlier on. It just might be that people are also a little bit more aware now of allergies.”
Whatever the case, allergies are all over, and they’re big business. They’re the sixth-leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S., according to the CDC. And they cost Americans more than $18 billion a year.
We know what causes allergies: Your immune system overreacts to an allergen (like your dog or a shrimp cocktail). You sneeze, sniffle, itch, or cough. But why this happens to you, when your Uncle Fred is on his third shrimp cocktail, is unclear.
Allergies that pop up for the first time in adults are even more mysterious. Why is it that when you were a kid, your best buddy was your cat Muffinmitts, but now the fur ball next door makes your eyes itch so bad you want to claw them out?
“That’s the thing about allergies,” Corn says. “You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine ... until you’re not.”
Nobody knows why.
“Most people are exposed to most of the [allergens] over their entire life,” McGrath says. “So why does it suddenly turn on? If we understood exactly what turned it on, we could probably turn it off. That would be the holy grail of allergy.”
For now, we’ve got to learn to manage allergy symptoms. The rules are the same for adults as they are for kids:
Both McGrath and Corn say they see plenty of adults who are shocked to learn that the cough they’ve developed isn’t due to a cold, but an allergy.
“They’re a little surprised, but I think for the most part they’re happy. Because now they have a reason for why they’re feeling the way that they feel,” Corn says. “When you’re older, you realize that in the spectrum of things that you can have ... if all you’re getting is allergies, then you’re really happy with that.”
A Shot of Hope
Allergies can sneak up on you. That cough may not be just a tickle, but a nasal drip because of an allergy, Corn says. That dead-tired feeling you have might not be you getting older. It may be an allergen that’s keeping you from getting a good night’s sleep.
“The fatigue of allergies is huge. The allergic rhinitis, the inflammation, kicks [adults] out of a deep sleep. So they don’t get rest,” McGrath says. “The allergy injections are one of the few things that are really very good at reversing that fatigue. The quality-of-life improvement is huge.”
Both doctors say that if you’re an adult who suddenly has allergies, shots can help you feel better. But they also understand why you might be squeamish. Especially at first, when doctors have to apply specific allergens to your skin to see what bugs you.
“Everybody thinks it’s going to be so awful,” McGrath says. “And then they go through it and go, ‘Man, if I knew this is all it was, I would have been in here a long time ago.’”
Once you know what you’re allergic to, doctors can know how to treat you. And once you know that, dealing with allergies really does become kids’ stuff.