Adult-Onset Allergies

Adult-onset allergies can be confusing and distressing as most people believe that when they are adults, they aren’t likely to develop intolerances to allergens.

By Corina Tan

Photo Credit: Hiraman/ Getty Images

If you have experienced any kind of unpleasant symptom or discomfort immediately after consuming or being exposed to something, you know how debilitating allergies can be.  They come in many shapes and sizes, and cover a range of substances that for some reason activates the immune system’s response to fight it off.  There is a common misconception that allergies are primarily a childhood affliction.  While many children do suffer from them, adults also find themselves suddenly having to deal with an allergy that they’ve never had before.

Adult-onset allergies can be confusing and distressing as most people believe that when they are adults, they aren’t likely to develop intolerances to allergens.  However, the reality is that complex genetic and environmental factors are responsible for a sudden reaction that appears as if out of nowhere.  Common causes are pollen, dust mites, mould, and food such as milk, tree nuts, soy, shellfish and wheat.  Symptoms of allergies include:

  • Sneezing
  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • Itching of the nose, eyes or skin
  • Watery, red or swollen eyes
  • Tingling in the mouth
  • Swelling of the lips, tongue or face,
  • Rashes or hives
  • Wheezing, chest tightness or shortness of breath

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A more serious type of allergy is when you have a severe reaction known as anaphylaxis shock.  This life-threatening emergency comes on quickly with symptoms such as:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Skin rash
  • Light-headedness
  • Rapid or weak pulse
  • Nausea and vomiting

Experts don’t seem to fully understand why allergies can strike in adulthood, but if a person has close family members with allergies, then they are more likely to develop one themselves.  Exposure to a new environment, such as after a move to a different climate, could introduce new allergens to body’s system.  People who have also experienced a hit to the immune system such as a viral illness or even hormonal changes such as puberty or menopause may also be at higher risk of developing new allergies, since their body’s defence systems may already be weakened.

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The difficulty in identifying the actual trigger makes treatment particularly challenging.  Several blood and skin tests can be conducted to find the reason behind the hypersensitivity, while simpler methods such as keeping a food diary and taking an antihistamine is used for milder symptoms.

It is still unclear whether adult-onset allergies eventually resolve or persist for life, but doctors usually assess the severity of symptoms and teach people how to manage them.  Other allergy treatments also include various forms of immunotherapy to retrain the immune system and decrease the frequency and severity of symptoms.

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