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Adult-Onset Allergies Are, Unfortunately, a Real Thing

Photo: Jason Hetherington/Getty Images

I’ve never had a problem with pollen before, but over the past few weeks I haven’t stopped sneezing. Is it possible I’ve developed allergies just this year?

Ah, springtime. Filled with flower blossoms, new beginnings — and, for a lot of people, red-eyed, snot-nosed misery. Welcome to the club.

If you’ve never before been one of the estimated 50 million Americans who suffers from some sort of nasal allergy, consider yourself lucky. At least you’ve made it this far. But, yes, there’s a chance those good times are ending. Because in between the chronic seasonal-allergy sufferers and the lucky jerks who have somehow escaped scot-free, there’s a third group: the people who, after decades of enjoying the spring without any allergy-induced misery, suddenly find themselves one warm May day sneezing at everything in sight. According to immunologist Kanao Otsu, an assistant professor of medicine at National Jewish Health, it is possible to develop seasonal allergies later in life — not terribly common, but definitely not unheard of, either. Here are a few of the unfortunate reasons why adult-onset allergies can strike.

Because you’re going through the second “peak” of allergies.

Most people generally develop allergies in one of two time periods, Otsu says: either the early elementary school years or early adulthood (from around 18 to the early 20s). It’s pretty rare to develop brand-new allergies any later than that, especially as people move in to their 30s and 40s — but once you do have allergies, they tend to worsen gradually. “Over time, people who have had symptoms of mild allergies can increase to have more symptoms,” she explains.

So what can trigger this second onslaught of allergies? Part of the reason may be that, as adults, we just have less exposure to seasonal allergens — grass, pollen, and mold are the most common culprits — than we did as children, when we were constantly running around outdoors. “A lot of the immune system is developed as children, but it does constantly change,” explains Feryal Hajee, an allergy and immunology doctor at Metropolitan Asthma and Allergy in Little Silver, New Jersey. If your immune system doesn’t regularly come into contact with those outside allergens, it’s possible that it may start to recognize them as foreign or toxic agents.

Because you may have had allergies all along, and they’ve just gotten worse.

It’s possible that your seasonal allergies aren’t new, but a change — like a move to a new environment — might make you more aware of them, Otsu says. For instance, if you move from a cooler, drier climate to someplace like humid, vegetation-rich Florida, your previously dormant allergies might suddenly kick into high gear. The reason has to do with how long the trees there are pollinating: If they don’t die off in winter, you’re around these outside allergens a lot longer.

You could also suffer more seasonal allergies if you move to a place with more pollution, like going from a rural to an urban setting, Hajee says. Traffic congestion makes a difference, as excess diesel and gasoline fumes can exacerbate allergies. So do animals: If you’ve recently brought home a furry friend, you may have noticed an uptick in allergylike symptoms. It could be new seasonal allergies, but it could very well be that a pet allergy is making itself known.

Because you’re actually experiencing something that just looks like seasonal allergies.

During allergy season, many people assume that common symptoms like nasal congestion and sneezing are a sign that their allergies are acting up. But those same symptoms can be caused by a sinus infection, a cold, or even just be your body’s reaction to the changing temperature.

If you’re not sure if you have allergies, Otsu says, you can get a test to find out for sure. (The test looks for a specific antibody that your body produces to battle certain allergens.) And if you’re worried about allergies developing or worsening, there are some steps you can take to keep allergens out of your house: Try changing your mattress every 10 to 15 years or so, and wash your linens every other week. If you think your home is moldy, or you smell something strange, make sure to get it tested.

But there is some good news: As you get older — think 60s and later — your allergies will likely start to fade, Hajee says. Granted, it’s a piece of good news that comes with a pretty big caveat: The reason for the change is that as you hit your later years, your immune system begins to weaken, which also leaves you more susceptible to infection. But hey, at least you can look forward to the outside world in the springtime becoming a little more pleasant.

Adult-Onset Allergies Are, Unfortunately, a Real Thing