Do Allergies Get Worse as You Age?

Allergies can get worse with age, but other age-related conditions might be causing your symptoms.
Image Credit: raquel arocena torres/Moment/GettyImages

You used to savor the scent of springtime, but suddenly your favorite season is sending you into a sneezing frenzy. What gives?

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Nope, you're not imagining it. You can develop allergies (or they can worsen) with age.

Here, Erin Reigh, MD, an allergist at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, explains why your allergic reaction may ramp up (or improve) during aging and ways to keep your symptoms in check.

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Why Allergies May Worsen With Age

Your ability to deal with allergies can go downhill when you're, well, over the hill. But it's not that common. "Only one in 10 people's allergies get worse as they get older," Dr. Reigh says.

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So, if you're one of the unfortunate few, here's why you might be experiencing an uptick in allergies.

1. Chronic Exposure to Allergens

While it may seem like your symptoms struck suddenly, it takes time for allergies to develop. In the case of outdoor allergens, you might even be symptom-free for several seasons until your immune system becomes sensitized, according to University Hospitals.

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But "once you have an allergy, continued exposure to the allergen can worsen your allergy over time," Dr. Reigh says. To add insult to injury, this may even lead to the development of asthma, especially in children, she says.

What You Can Do to Reduce Your Exposure

“We recommend keeping allergen levels down in the home as much as possible and to focus on the bedroom because of how much time we spend there,” Dr. Reigh says.

Here, Dr. Reigh recommends simple strategies to slash the number of allergens in your home, especially in the boudoir:

1. Get rid of rugs and carpets (if you can).​ “Carpets and rugs are great at collecting allergens, so you should remove them if you can, especially from the bedroom,” Dr. Reigh says. “If you can’t, vacuum them at least once a week with a HEPA filter vacuum to keep allergens from building up."

2. Protect your pillows and mattress.​ “Getting allergy covers for your mattress and pillows can prevent allergens from building up in your bed,” says Dr. Reigh, who recommends "a woven microfiber cover with a pore size of 6 microns or less."

3. Reduce the humidity​. “For dust mites, it helps to keep the humidity down because dust mites love warm, humid air,” Dr. Reigh says. “Aim for 35 to 50 percent humidity if you can.” To minimize moisture in the home, use air conditioners and dehumidifiers along with exhaust fans in bathrooms and kitchens.

4. Opt for an air purifier​. “Running a HEPA air purifier can also keep levels of airborne allergens down in the home,” Dr. Reigh says.

5. Wash your sheets once a week​. This will kill off dust mites, Dr. Reigh says.

6. Don’t let pets on the bed​. “Even if you aren’t allergic to them, they can track in other allergens like pollen and molds that they pick up on their fur outside,” Dr. Reigh says.

7. Take the top bunk.​ “Sleeping on the bottom bunk of a bunk bed increases the risk of asthma in kids with allergies because they get exposed to dust mite allergens from above and below,” Dr. Reigh says. “We recommend kids who are prone to allergies take the top bunk — doctor’s orders."

2. Changes in Your Immune System

With age, your immune system changes, which can also affect your tolerance toward allergens, according to an April 2017 paper in Aging and Disease.

The authors state that immunological function — including defenses against infections, inflammation and allergic reactions — can shift over time. And this can possibly exacerbate allergies in older people.

3. Climate Change

Just as global warming affects weather patterns with every passing year, it can also affect your allergies.

"Expect allergies to worsen with climate change," Dr. Reigh says.

Here's why: "Studies show that pollen counts are higher when it is warmer and when CO2 levels are higher," Dr. Reigh says. And these warmer temperatures can have a twofold effect: triggering an earlier start ​and​ later end to the allergy season (read: a lengthier period for people with allergies to slog through).

"In fact, ragweed season is now almost one month longer than it was in 1995 at some latitudes," Dr. Reigh says.

And if you think rural areas — where there are more trees and grass — will get hit the hardest, think again. "One study on climate change found that pollen levels were seven times higher in the city due to the heat island effect and the higher CO2 levels," Dr. Reigh says.

How to Avoid Outdoor Allergens

When there's a plethora of pollen in the air, try these tips to reduce your exposure, per the Mayo Clinic.

  • Check pollen forecasts and current pollen levels in your area (the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology and Pollen.com are great resources).
  • If high pollen counts are forecasted, start taking allergy medications before your symptoms start.
  • Close doors and windows at night, if possible, or any other time when pollen counts are high.
  • Avoid outdoor activity in the early morning when pollen counts are highest.
  • Avoid lawn mowing, weed pulling and other gardening chores that stir up allergens.
  • Remove clothes you've worn outside and shower to rinse pollen from your skin and hair.
  • Don't hang laundry outside — pollen can stick to sheets and towels.
  • Wear a face mask if you do outside chores.

It May Not Be Allergies at All

If you've suddenly started sneezing or struggling with a constant runny nose in your 40s, you might assume it's allergies. But the source of these symptoms could be something else entirely.

"Some of the worsening people experience with age is not due to allergies at all, but things that can mimic allergy," Dr. Reigh says.

Here are a few things that can simulate allergy symptoms:

  • Medications.​ "Certain drugs can cause runny nose as a side effect, including birth control pills, some blood pressure medications and pills for an enlarged prostate," Dr. Reigh says.
  • Atrophic rhinitis​. "The protective lining of the nose can break down over time and make us more susceptible to irritants, like particles in the air and fragrances, a condition called atrophic rhinitis," Dr. Reigh says.
  • Vasomotor rhinitis.​ With age, "the nerve endings in the nose can also become overly sensitive and lead to congestion and runny nose, a condition called vasomotor rhinitis," Dr. Reigh says.

So, what are some clues that your collection of symptoms may not actually be allergies?

"If your symptoms began over the age of 45, if you don't have a family history of allergies and if you haven't been able to link your symptoms to a specific season or a trigger like a pet, you are a lot more likely to have one of these allergy mimics," Dr. Reigh says.

If that's the case, talk to your doctor to learn what you can do to control your symptoms.

On the Other Hand, Sometimes Allergies Improve With Age

While allergies ​can​ worsen with age, the reverse can happen as well. Yep, your allergies may ease up as you get older.

"It is unknown why some people outgrow environmental allergies and others don't," Dr. Reigh says. But the age at which you first began to suffer with allergies appears to be a factor, she says.

"The younger you are when your symptoms start, the more likely you are to outgrow them," Dr. Reigh says. For example, "in one study, 85 percent of people who started having allergic rhinitis before age 5 outgrew their allergies by age 40," compared to only 39 percent of people with allergy onset after age 20, she says.

OK, but why are you more likely to kick the allergies if you developed them as a tyke? "This is probably because kids' immune systems are still learning and aren't 'set in their ways' yet," Dr. Reigh explains.

"We also know that you're less likely to outgrow allergies if you have asthma, eczema or a strong family history of allergies," she adds.

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references

Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.