Adult Allergies

First-time allergies in adults are on the rise -- and they often don't go away like the ones you get as a kid. Here, how to find sweet relief.
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Allergies -- At Your Age?

For 37 years I never got even the slightest sniffle in spring or fall. Then I moved from Manhattan to upstate New York and started getting one sinus infection after another. I figured the culprit was colder temperatures combined with outdoor running. Allergies never crossed my mind -- that's something that starts in childhood, right? In fact, when I finally went to my doctor, it turned out I had become allergic to ragweed. I'm not alone. "Compared to 20 years ago, there's simply no doubt that we're seeing more adult patients seeking help for new allergies," says Peter Socrates Creticos, MD, medical director of Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center. Among the most common types: pollen, dust, mites, pets, mold, and food -- all of which you can have reactions to for the first time as a grown-up.

When you're allergic, your body responds to something it sees as an allergen by first making immunoglobin E (IgE) antibodies, proteins the immune system produces to recognize and fight specific body "invaders." An allergic reaction is what happens when the IgE antibodies that are now in your body trigger the release of histamines, leukotrienes, and other chemicals. These substances cause all allergy symptoms, from the sneezing sparked by a mild pollen allergy to breathing difficulties from a severe food reaction.

Adult Allergy Causes

Why can you suddenly become allergic to, say, cat dander? Because if you have a genetic predisposition to this allergy, it can take years of exposure before your body starts making IgE antibodies. Or these are triggered when moving exposes you to a new area's allergen (as in my situation). Viruses may contribute, too -- people are more liable to get an allergy after being sick. Then there's the "hygiene hypothesis": Smaller family size, improved sanitation, and personal cleanliness as well as frequent use of antibiotics limit exposure to infections from viruses and bacteria, resulting in fewer infections and prompting people's immune systems "to develop the tendency to overreact to routine things like dust mites or pollen," says Amin S. Kanani, MD, clinical instructor, division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. In addition, air pollution may irritate airways, making us more allergy prone.

Whatever the causes, one thing is clear: Unlike children, who sometimes outgrow allergies, "if you develop one as an adult, chances are you will have it for the rest of your life," says Beth Corn, MD, chief of the Allergy/Asthma Clinic at New York City's Mount Sinai School of Medicine. No one knows why. We do know that left untreated, allergies can cause fatigue, sleep disturbances, and mental fogginess.

Continued on page 2:  Environmental Allergies


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