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Why Allergies Change as We Age

May 27, 2021

Allergies can be mildly annoying, serious – or even life-threatening. And as we age, allergies can dissipate entirely or we can develop new ones. Here’s a look at exactly what is going on in your body when you have an allergy, and how to recognize an allergy that might develop later. 

An allergy is a mistaken immune response. Instead of reacting to a harmful virus, for example, a hypersensitive immune system may fight something harmless in the environment and react by producing antibodies. 

Symptoms depend on the allergen and how we’re exposed to it. For mild allergies, usually caused by environmental factors, symptoms can include: 

  • nasal congestion

  • sneezing

  • itchy eyes

  • watery eyes

  • runny nose

  • sinus pressure

  • hives 

More serious reactions: 

  • swollen lips or tongue

  • constricted airways, causing wheezing or trouble breathing

  • gastrointestinal issues, such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea

  • anaphylaxis, which can cause vomiting, difficulty breathing and shock

  • low blood pressure, also called hypotension

  • dizziness or fainting 

Whether the allergy is environmental or a food allergy such as peanuts, the symptoms can be vastly different depending on the person. It’s important to note that food or insect allergies can come with more severe reactions because of the concentration of the allergen inside the body. 

How Allergies Change and Develop Over Time 

We’re not born with allergies, but some people can be more prone to them, and families can share genetic factors that make them more likely to develop allergies to environmental elements, chemicals or foods. What’s more, allergies tend to develop in kids because children are exposed to a lot of outside stimuli for the first time. [CL1]  

Some allergies take longer to fully develop, so they may appear later in life. If we change environments, like move to a different home or office, a different state or country, it’s possible that our allergies will adapt to our new surroundings. Environmental allergens that existed in one place may not exist in another. 

Your immune system is also constantly changing and adapting, so new allergies and intolerances can develop as your body changes. 

Allergies vs. Sensitivities 

An allergy and and Sensitivity aren’t the same. Someone with gluten sensitivity is different from someone with celiac disease, and someone who is lactose intolerant may experience gastrointestinal symptoms after eating dairy, but these are not technically allergic responses, as they have a different mechanism of action. Sensitivities have the following gastrointestinal symptoms:

  • gas and bloating

  • diarrhea

  • constipation

  • cramping

  • nausea 

For those with sensitivities, a different mechanism contributes to their bodily response, but the solution may be the same: avoiding the specific type of food or product [CL2] that causes their symptoms.

When to Talk to Your Doctor

Any time you’re experiencing new symptoms, it’s a good idea to mention it to your doctor. However, if you notice the beginnings of an allergic reaction, especially to certain foods, you’ll want to make an appointment. If you’re having any kind of reaction when you eat nuts, for example, you should certainly stop eating them, but also consult with your doctor, who can suggest treatment or refer you to an allergist if necessary. 

If you are diagnosed with a specific allergy, avoiding the allergen, if possible, is the first step. Antihistamine and possibly nasal spray medications may help, or your doctor could suggest allergy shots or desensitization treatments with a specialist. 

Carrying an EpiPen for emergencies is important if the allergy has already advanced to threatening levels. An allergist can help you determine the course of treatment or prevention but staying vigilant about how your body reacts to foods and the environment can save your life.

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